Pop Aye is an elegiac and spiritual symphony of subdued emotions, soft colors, and natural images from an ever-changing Thailand. Singaporean director Kirsten Tan’s feature debut is much more than a road movie—it is an invitation for viewers to join middle-aged architect Thana's journey of self-discovery alongside his newfound childhood friend, the elephant Pop Aye. Played by Thai singer, record producer and DJ Thaneth Warakulnukroh, Thana's journey is a spiritual search for his original fulcrum and ultimately his real identity. The fortuitous reconnection with his old friend will hopefully help him to understand what went wrong with his life, his youthful ideals, his current job, and last but not least his crumbling marriage to Bo, a role interpreted by 1970s-‘80s Thailand’s sex symbol and model, Penpak Sirikul.
The main character's subtle performance conveys the intimate combination of three emotional states—a pervasive sense of yearning for a past that has irremediably changed, a sense of loss of what has now become unrecognizable, and a profound air of malaise for an unknowable future that ultimately harks Thana back to an unsatisfactory present, that he struggles to come to terms with.
Change, memory and loss are at the center of this film. The director skillfully plays with the registers of time and place—the cinematic juxtaposition of past and present events, as well as the photographic precision in showing the urban-rural divide, are painstakingly intertwined. Thailand's rural landscape serves as the constant background for the relationship between man and elephant; their experience seems to embody a craving for happy ending, but the journey only brings Thana back to the beginning. As T.S. Eliot poignantly argued in The Four Quartets, "What we call the beginning is often the end. And to make an end is to make a beginning. The end is where we start from."
Most of the film takes place outside Bangkok, and Lee Chatametikool's editing authoritatively moves back and forth between Thana's troublesome present and his childhood memories with his elephant-friend. The capital city is tactfully turned into a non-presence: succinctly presented through a commercial which alludes to a hypothetically happy-consumeristic life in the city. This montage helps the viewer to sympathize with Thana—and hundreds of thousands of rural migrants to the city from all over Asia—for whom the city is not a place where he can live anymore: rather, it has become a place to move away from, to leave behind. Thirty years before, when Thana had left his native town of Loei in the north-eastern part of Isan province—in terms of regional value-added per capita, Thailand's poorest region—he had a dream: to improve his living conditions and also to contribute, as an architect, in shaping a city, "designing urban space for families and friends to get together." When he arrived in Bangkok, in the 1990s, Thana's dream of urban modernity was accompanied by his success story as chief architect, having designed the landmark mixed-use high-rise building Gardenia Square, a part-residential, part-shopping center.
Fast-forwarding to the present, Thana's skills, expertise, and vision of a sort of architectural, modernist utopia, are no match for the company's greedy boss and his son. Their eyes are firmly focused on the profit-generating machine, a plan to destroy the old Gardenia Square in order to build a new, taller, hyper-modern, glittering-façade building. Significantly re-baptized Eternity, this project will generate much higher returns. Their globalizing urbanism is dominated by the logic of increasing the exchange value of space, while dismissing the community's concerns for the use value of public areas. Social engineering through the language of urban verticality dominates Asian metropolises: density, building height, and mixed land use are key to maximizing developers' profits. Bangkok is no exception: it has become a city of profit as opposed to a city of people.
Amid this crisis, Thana's newly-found old friend, the elephant Pop Aye, seems to offer a ray of hope and a new purpose. The elephant is a symbol of possibility, that resides in the past instead of a bleak present-future, a safety net from Thana’s hardships and adversities. But his hometown Loei is very far away—545 km north-northeast of Bangkok, a roughly 100-hour journey. On the way back to his uncle Peak's home, the place where they both grew up, Thana and Pop Aye encounter a series of enigmatic individuals who also seem to have reached the end of their proverbial road. The first is Dee, a penniless sort of spiritual hippie who lives in an abandoned gas station and is convinced—for no apparent reason—that his end is near, and blissfully so, since it will allow him to reunite with his departed brother. Thana seems to project onto Dee his own desire to find a reason to live. In an uncanny scene, Thana wants to see Dee fulfill his lifelong dream: to buy a scooter and go to visit his ex-girlfriend. Thana's second encounter occurs at a surreal pit stop where he meets Jenni, a raddled transgender character with whom he sings, in an unlikely karaoke duet, the famous American ballad "Oh John, You Make Me Cry," which is "sadder than a sad movie."
Ultimately, Thana's attempts to connect with these characters are not very successful. He feels closer to the elephant—"You are just like me Pop Aye: old, fat and homeless!" In the end, Pop Ayerepresents an exercise in friendship and karmic lessons, and a reflection on the value of a rural landscape that will persist in the viewer's memory more than the tentacular city that risks to annihilate both humanity and our dreams. Following a twist that awaits Thana and Pop Aye in Loei, the film ends on a note of rediscovered trust and affection, taking Thana back to another beginning and allowing him to rediscover that place for the first time.