Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Tue Jun 27, 2017 4:21 pm 
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Bitter ironies trump the exotic in this Thai road trip home for an aging architect & pet elephant

Kirsten Tan's film engages not so much through its opening shots of a middle class man hitchhiking across Thailand with an elephant, but with the follow-up patchwork of establishing scenes, linked with twangy music reminiscent of Wong Kar-wai, of that man being shelved in the architectural firm that he helped get started with the design of a big project called Gardenia Square, or being rejected by his standoffish wife Bo (Penpak Sirikul), who can't endure his touch. It seems far-fetched, that this elephant he's bought off the streets of Bangkok recognizes him, and he it, when it left his family when he was still boy. But wait: "An elephant never forgets." Disenchanted with his wife and his job, Thana (Thaneth Warakulnukroh) goes on a late-stage midlife crisis fugue, elephant in tow, with the ostensible target of taking the pachyderm back to the rural farm he grew up on, and turning it over to his uncle Peak (Narong Pongpab) to be cared for. There's the premise. Indirectly this is a offbeat tour of Thailand, and so the cinematography of Chananun Chotrungroj is an important aspect, though as Maggie Lee notes in her Variety review, her lensing of the trip north through various provinces is on the flat and deadpan side.

The story's execution is a series of vignettes, many focused on human misfits, homeless, earning a living on the street. The long-haired aging hippie called Dee, (Chaiwat Khumdee,) who lives in an abandoned gas station is visionary, or insane, or just desperate, and speaks in an incongruously high-pitched girlish voice, offers up a proffered lit cigarette as at a shrine to the memory of his deceased brother, who liked to smoke. Thana would like to help him as well as elicit his company and help on his journey, but that is not to be.

When the elephant gets loose while Thana is shopping for groceries, he is stopped by a pair of free-floating policeman, who threaten to take him to their station. They seem to lack the patience, though, to follow the big pet's lumbering pace. Along the way they stop at a seedy bar whose visitors include Jenni, a sad, battered transgender woman (Yukontorn Sukkijja) who sings a song. It all seems a less dreamy and poetic and more realistic version of a scene from a film by Apichatpong Weerasethakul. The bat squeak of sexuality that occurs between Thana and Jenni is a hint at how starved of physicality his marriage must have become.

Charming and picturesque this road trip is not. The earliest incident shows Thana getting rudely ejected from a truck (Pop Aye had deftly climbed up in back) for not being able to pee neatly into a cup. Later when Thana tries riding on the elephant's back it looks desperately uncomfortable. There is definitely nostalgia hinted at in this film, the nostalgia for a time when Thana's life was more hopeful, but only a few surreal moments are a distraction from the rude irony of realities encountered along a path where both man and beast are always out of place, sometimes a little, sometimes a lot. Reaching the rural destination provides no heartwarming finale.

Director Tan grew up in Singapore and currently lives in New York, where she studied at NYU's Tisch School of the Arts. She lived in Bangkok during her twenties, and, according to Maggie Lee, acquired basic fluency in Thai by running a T-shirt shop there for a while. This her first feature following a string of shorts.

Pop Aye, 104 mins., debuted in the World Cinema section at Sundance 2017 in which it won the Best Screenplay Award, later got the Big Screen award at Rotterdam; over a half dozen other festivals. US theatrical release by Kino Lorber begins 28 June 2017 at Film Forum in NYC; opening 7 July at the Nuart Theater in Los Angeles; Landmark Theaters to follow.

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