As it winds north through rural Thailand, Pop Aye makes only a brief stop at a Buddhist site. But there's plenty of karma in writer-director Kirsten Tan's affecting low-key drama, beginning with its human protagonist's quest to repay what he owes his elephant companion.
For Thana (Thaneth Warakulnukroh), the animal is both a friend and a metaphor for loss — and not the biggest of the latter. Thana is a Bangkok-based architect who's entering the twilight of his career. His looming obsolescence is symbolized by Gardenia Square, a large mixed-use project he designed, and which is about to be demolished.
As he anticipates the destruction of his legacy, Thana also finds that he's become less valued at work and at home. His wife (Penpak Sirikul) shows little interest in conversation, and appears to have replaced one part of their relationship with a candy-colored vibrator.
Feeling old and unappreciated, Thana is understandably pleased to encounter an elephant he recognizes as Popeye, a childhood companion named for the animated sailor. (He hums the cartoon's theme song, and the elephant responds.) The animal and his handler are eking out an existence on the streets of Bangkok. Thana impulsively buys his old pal, and soon decides to take him to his rustic hometown and entrust him to his uncle.
As will eventually be revealed, Thana does not know much about the current state of either the hamlet or his relatives. But then the movie, shot in muted colors and often from an distance, doesn't pretend to understand even its central duo all that well. Their journey is gently absurd, not revelatory.
The trip proceeds mostly on foot, lumbering at a pace an unsympathetic cop calls "elephant speed." Some segments of the itinerary employ flatbed trucks large enough to haul an elephant. There are also a few excursions into the past, including a brief enchanted memory of Thana and Popeye as kids together.
The gray-haired Thana and bedraggled Popeye have grown up to be outsiders, and along the way they encounter others of their nonconforming kind. These include a transgender woman (Yukontorn Sukkijja) who shares a duet with Thana at roadside karaoke bar, and an aging hippie (Chaiwat Khumdee) who lives in an abandoned gas station and anticipates his death because he "read it in the stars." Both become part of Thana and Popeye's karmic circle in a story that's loosely structured but not aimless.
Director Tan is originally from Singapore and now lives in New York, hardly bucolic locales. But she spent a few years in Thailand, where she explored the country's back roads. She's also familiar enough with contemporary Thai art cinema to have hired editor Lee Chatametikool, known for his work with director Apichatpong Weerasethakul. Pop Aye, her first feature, is much more straightforward than Weerasethakul's work, but suggests his influence, notably in the karaoke-bar sequence, the movie's most surreal (and raunchy) episode.
Popeye, played by an elephant called Bong, is an engaging character. But this is not a Disney-style movie that treats animals as basically human. While Thana's motivation ultimately becomes clear, Popeye's goal appears to be simply to keep moving. Tethering him to, say, a shopping cart does not impede his progress.
Animal lovers may wish the film offered a stronger resolution to the elephant's saga. But at least Popeye is spared Thana's fate: a vision of Bangkok's future that looks to erase not only the architect's accomplishments but nearly all of Thai culture. The logic of globalizing development promotes a world with no connections, karmic or otherwise.