Pop Aye (Kirsten Tan, 2017)

pop aye posterLife’s crises can take many forms but when they involve elephants it’s usually with a little more distance than in Kristen Tan’s whimsical debut, Pop Aye. A metaphorical return to source, a man entering late middle age tries to reclaim his childhood innocence by walking backwards (with an elephant) but discovers that you really can’t go home again. Man and elephant set off on a classic buddy movie road trip, enjoying a selection of encounters with fellow travellers each with a few lessons to impart.

A man in late middle age, Thana’s (Thaneth Warakulnukroh) carefully crafted life seems to be imploding all at once. The first building he designed, Gardenia Square, was an elegantly appointed modern shopping centre which seemed to perfectly reflect the growing consumerism of the ‘80s. 30 years later his futuristic design is now dated, and Gardenia Square is set for demolition to make way for the next modernist masterpiece ironically titled “Eternity”. If that weren’t depressing enough, the son of Thana’s former partner has taken over the business but has none of his father’s loyalty and is determined to sideline the office’s silly old man through pointedly underhanded ways such as deliberately telling him the wrong time for meetings and depositing the physical 3D model he spent a night at the office finishing with all the other rubbish in a now disused room.

If his work life is failing, Thana’s home life isn’t doing much better. His shopaholic wife, Bo (Penpak Sirikul), has little time for him and when Thana discovers her hidden vibrator, he finally realises he is entirely obsolete in every area of his life. So when he catches sight of a beautiful elephant dressed in elegant attire ready for posing for photos with foreign tourists, Thana has an immediate reaction which takes him right back to his boyhood days spent in the company of family pet, Popeye (Bong). Tracking the elephant down again and singing the cartoon’s famous theme tune to verify his identity, Thana decides to buy him (much to his wife’s horror). Seeing as you can’t really keep a giant elephant in your back garden, Thana decides his destiny is to take Popeye back to his rural village where he believes his uncle will look after him.

Undoubtedly part metaphor, Popeye represents the innocence and natural beauty of pre-modern Thailand – the very qualities Thana feels himself to have betrayed when he chose to leave home in less than ideal circumstances to pursue a “better” life in the big city. Thana got what he wanted. He became successful, wealthy, in some sense fulfilled, but now just when he should be entering a more contented phase of his life it’s all crumbling away from him and his ambivalence about the sacrifice he made as a young man is beginning to resurface. He thinks he can put something right by “rescuing” Popeye and reclaiming these qualities in the process but, as usual, nothing’s quite that simple.

Thana’s flight is as much from the modern world as it is from himself. Feeling unloved, Thana also feels eclipsed by his times, held in contempt by the younger generation whose sleek suits and obvious insincerity are a poor match for his disheveled befuddlement. This is a world in which monks accept Visa and take photos of elephants (which must surely be ten a penny) on their tablets. The city takes you in as quickly as it’ll spit you out, Thana warns a young truck driver, but his rare moment of direct emotional honesty is shrugged off as the rantings of an old man.

Despite the coldness of city life, Thana mostly meets warmhearted people on his journey through the countryside, beginning with a roadside saint who describes himself as being “like a tree” in the way he stays rooted to the spot observing the people and cars going by. Dee, noticing Thana’s blistered feet offers him his flip-flops which he won’t need anymore because he’s going to see his brother in Heaven. After all, even trees have to die someday. Grateful to the man, Thana takes Dee under his wing and vows to help him achieve his final wishes, but his intervention may have unforeseen consequences.

Thana even generates a strange bond with the policemen who arrest him for cluttering up the scenery in his nice middle-class neighbourhood which eventually leads him to a rural bar where he seems to meet a kindred spirit in Jenny – a melancholy transgender woman with a longstanding resentment of the bar’s resident “hostess”. Despite hitting it off with Jenny who seems to understand his particular pain, Thana disappoints himself by ending up in a humiliating, unsolicited situation with the bar girl but finds the equally disappointed Jenny forgiving and still willing to help a fellow traveller in need even if, as seems to be the case in much of his life, Thana has allowed himself to be bamboozled into doing something he didn’t really want to do.

At the end of his long, strange journey, Thana finds his illusions shattered, his romantic dream of his childhood home exposed as a mix of memory, nostalgia and idealism. Thana ends up where he started, only with a little more clarity and a new trend towards acceptance rather than defiance. He may think of Popeye merely as the manifestation of the innocence he sacrificed in childhood, but Popeye is his own elephant with his own ideas about his future which might or might not include Thana. Ending on a slightly upbeat note in which Thana is perhaps not as unloved as he believed himself to be, Pop Aye is charming odyssey through middle-age malaise set against the beautiful Thai landscape and told with a whimsical, melancholy humour.


Screened at BFI London Film Festival 2017.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Concrete Clouds (Lee Chatametikool, 2014) Via UK Anime Network

Concrete CloudsI reviewed this flawed yet interesting film, Concrete Clouds, for UK Anime Network. Probably I think I liked it a bit more than the score suggests but it does have its problems. Also ’90s (or maybe ’80s?) Thai pop is kind of amazing.


Up to now Lee Chatametikool has been best known as the regular editor on the films of Apichatpong Weerasethakul (Uncle Boonmee, Tropical Malady) but with Concrete Clouds he’s finally stepped out of the edit suite and behind the camera to direct his very first feature film. However, Concrete Clouds owes less to Apichatpong Weerasethakul or any of the other well known Thai directors he’s been working with over the last decade than it does to early period Tsai Ming-Liang and the Taiwanese new wave. A mood piece heavy on directorial flair but light on detail, Concrete Clouds never quite comes together but still manages to offer a few rewards for the patient viewer.

Set in 1997 just as the Asian Economic crisis begins to take hold, long time emigré Mutt (Ananda Everingham) gets a late night phone call from his high school age brother to say their father has just jumped off the roof. Mutt goes home for the first time in a long time aiming to lay a few ghosts – less that of his father than that of his teenage self and half forgotten love. Meanwhile, younger brother Nic has formed a tentative romance with a girl from the next building who appears to be living more or less alone and has just begun working in a hostess club. Just like his brother he’ll have to decide whether to abandon his love in Thailand to seek new dreams overseas or chase an ever elusive future in the land of his birth.

To be frank, the somewhat shocking and early death of the father retains little impact after the fact as neither of the now orphaned sons seems to dwell very long on the loss of their only parental figure and there’s no real soul searching over why he did what he did. The blueprints for new buildings he was looking at right before and the constant financial concern on the news screens seem to be evidence enough of his ultimate motives. Neither is much mention made of the absent mother who, one assumes, has been absent for a relatively long time. The age gap between the brothers also means that their relationship is not as close as you might assume brothers to be as Mutt must have left for America when Nic was little more than a toddler. Nevertheless, both boys are cast adrift by the older man’s decision, taken alone and with seemingly little concern for those around him.

The historical context is fairly key to the film though may be impenetrable for those less versed in recent history. In setting the story in 1997, the director intends both to imply that many of Thailand’s present social and economic problems stem back to the Asian Financial Crisis and the new Thai constitution which was created around that time but also to deal with the fragile nature of memory and our own tendencies to over romanticise our pasts by falling in love with a fantasy of our own creation. Mutt has dreamed of his high school girlfriend, Sai, ever since leaving her to go to college in America. He lives with a woman in New York but their relationship doesn’t seem particularly serious and she has not accompanied him to Thailand for his father’s funeral. Even though years have passed he’s remained faithful to the image of Sai he has in his mind and however much he tells himself nothing has changed it’s his own self created image that he’s wedded to, rather than the flesh and blood Sai who’s been busy getting on with her own life in the intervening ten years.

In a another cloud based film, Mikio Naruse’s Floating Clouds, the title refers to the the central characters who are unable to re-root themselves after the disruption caused to their lives firstly in failed Manchurian expedition and then by the after effects of the war. They float aimlessly trying to find something they can cling on to that will allow them to move forward with their lives and ultimately never find it. In Concrete Clouds it’s almost the opposite problem, the characters are weighed down by their dreams, almost crushed by them and unable to move. Their dreams will never lift off the ground because they can’t bear to let go of the past, of the people they once were and things they once thought they wanted.

The most notable element of Concrete Clouds is its unusual shooting style which incorporates everything from snatches of archival footage to long stretches of fantasy sequences played out as karaoke videos to late ‘90s Thai pop songs. The film has an interesting aesthetic which appropriately matches its melancholy and slightly wistful tone though it fails to capture the exact emotional ache that it seems to be going for. Ultimately its disparate elements never quite seem to coalesce into something more and though Concrete Clouds has plenty to admire it stops short of capturing the heart. Nevertheless it’s an impressive debut from Lee Chatametikool who has marked himself out as new talent to look out for in Thai cinema.


This is getting a release from Day For Night in the UK and here’s the trailer

And here’s a clip of one of the karaoke sequences

And another from the OST

(I don’t know any Thai at all, what is this music?)