A kind of love story, the film introduces its interspecies friends via a modified meet-cute: Thana (Thaneth Warakulnukroh) drives past the pachyderm in question one night and is instantly taken by its majestic presence, not least because he recognizes the creature from his childhood. Its current owner assures the aging architect that this elephant has had many names over the years, but he’s currently known as Chang Beer — a moniker that Thana quickly reverts back to Popeye upon buying him.
Elephants, with their imposing size and gentle nature, are among the most cinematic of all animals. Popeye is no exception: We first see him donning elaborate finery that attracts a small crowd of onlookers; a closer look reveals freckle-like light spots on his trunk. Whatever look Thana gives him seems to be reflected back at the man. Soon, after growing weary of his personal and professional life in Bangkok, Thana endeavors to return to his hometown — on foot — with his old friend.
Popeye himself does much of the heavy lifting — you’d either have to be pretty cold, or the movie would have to be pretty terrible, for a story of this nature not to elicit any feeling at all. That’s not to discredit Tan, who imbues the familiar man-befriends-animal proceedings of her feature debut with heart and wit. “Pop Aye” never dips into cutesiness or sentimentality, even when you might find yourself wishing it would; it’s less a big-top circus and more a low-key character study.
The writer/director also resists the urge to anthropomorphize her nonhuman star. Popeye (real name Bong) isn’t just there for Thana to project his feelings onto (“You’re just like me: old, fat and homeless,” he tells him), but rather to experience a journey of his own, one that’s informed by Thana’s experiences but not defined by them. The result, while never conventionally feel-good, will warm even the coldest of hearts.
“The city takes you in as quick as spits you out,” says Thana, who’s no longer the hot shot in Bangkok’s architectural world that he once was. This trip may be a homecoming, but it’s also an escape — from the disenchantment of adulthood, from his fading marriage, from reality itself. Watching a man and his elephant walk along the road is often a sight to behold, but Tan rarely lets us forget that its impetus is a sad one.
Thana and Popeye encounter many on their trek, some more philosophical than others. “I feel a bit like a tree,” muses a man who insists that he’ll soon depart this mortal coil because it’s written in the stars. “But even trees have to die.” There’s a quiet calm to such scenes, with Popeye proving as soothing to us as he is to Thana. They say the journey is often more meaningful than the destination, but both prove moving in “Pop Aye” — you don’t always have to know where you’re going for a trip to be worth taking.
“Pop Aye” is now playing in New York and opens in Los Angeles on Friday.