‘POP AYE,’ A SINGAPOREAN-THAI FILM BY KIRSTEN TAN, IS CAPTIVATING FOR MANY REASONS, ONE BEING ITS ABILITY TO DRAW THE CHARACTER OF THE THAI ELEPHANT OUT FROM ITS STEREOTYPICAL PERCEPTION, DESPITE THE FILM’S NON-THAI DIRECTOR.
Due to the fact that Thailand has the elephant as its national animal, every time that the creature makes an appearance on either the silver screen or television, it’s often perceived not simply as a living creature but rather as an embellished symbol full of cultural implications. For the majority of Thai viewers, Thai elephants represent a value that needs to be preserved and glorified, while in the eyes of the international audience, Thai elephants are representation of the exotic impression of a developing country, causing the image of Thai elephants to be trapped in a paradoxical status of a cultural symbol and representation of the developing world. ‘Pop Aye,’ a Singaporean-Thai film, is captivating for many reasons, one being its ability to draw the character of the Thai elephant out from the aforementioned stereotypical perception, while the story is told in a joyous, warm and incredibly charming tone despite the film’s non-Thai director.
Pop Aye is Kirsten Tan’s first film. The female Singaporean director is also the person behind the screenplay of this road movie that tells the story of a friendship between two species, Thana, an architect who’s going through a midlife crisis and Pop Aye, and old elephant raised by Thana’s family back when they were living in a rural area. The two journey through the thick and thin of Bangkok in order to return to their ‘home’ in a northern province of Thailand. Their journey reminds us of another Thai road movie Handle Me with Care or Kod (2008) directed by Kongdej Jaturanrasamee, which chronicles the story of a three-armed man who has to travel to Bangkok for an arm operation. The narrative is a comparative depiction in which the protagonist attempts to ‘normalize’ himself to fit in with social standards. The expedition by a man and an old elephant from Bangkok to their rural home represents the Thai bourgeoisie’s longing for their roots and origins amidst the modern world’s restless stream of changes. Thana is an architect whose works were widely recognized during the late 80s, which was considered a glorious time in Thailand’s economy as the country was striving to become Asia’s Fifth Tiger. The dream was shattered by unexpected changes happening in the world at the time before it eventually withered away. A yesterday’s fantasy is nothing but the past, and the past can never become the present. It’s just like a building Thana designed 30 years ago that once symbolized the country’s economic progress; the built structure is now just a deteriorating edifice waiting to be torn down.
Rather than just a feel good road movie featuring a cute-looking Thai elephant, Pop Aye is a humorous and incredible story that invites viewers to explore and contemplate societal changes, the state of the economy of the country and the time they’re living in.
TEXT: RATCHAPOOM BOONBUNCHACHOKE