There’s a wonderful moment in “Pop Aye,” when an elephant gives the camera — and you — the stink eye. Then again, maybe the elephant, called Pop Aye and played by a majestic giant named Bong, is just exhausted, namely with people. You can’t blame him. He’s been tramping around the countryside for much of the movie, usually in the fumbling company of Thana (Thaneth Warakulnukroh), an architect from Bangkok who, with his marriage on the rocks and his career seriously on the skids, has set off on his midlife crisis not behind the wheel of a new sports car but alongside an old elephant.
They make a funny pair, by turns amusing and puzzling, though also melancholic and touching. For the most part, these variations seem by design in a movie that flirts with assorted narrative conventions and fluctuating moods without ever settling into a familiar template. It takes some time, though, to figure out what the writer-director Kirsten Tan has in store for Thana and Pop Aye, who are first seen trudging together along a dusty, bleak stretch of road. They’re nowhere in particular, certainly nowhere remotely inviting, and before long they’re trying to catch a ride, which is about as challenging as you might expect when one of the hitchhikers is an elephant.
Thana, it emerges, is on his way to his childhood home. His reasons emerge piecemeal, relayed in regular flashbacks that create a mosaic-like portrait of a man whose life somehow, somewhere went wrong. Not catastrophically wrong, mind you, just disappointingly adrift and askew. That seems to be the idea, although it takes an attentive, patient viewer to fit together the shards that Ms. Tan scatters throughout, and to see how the flashbacks to Thana’s childhood, with its pleasures and dark secrets, fit in with his more recent slights and grievances, including the impending demolition of one of his buildings, a glass-tower monument to consumerism.
This narrative fragmentation can be needlessly frustrating rather than interestingly complex and, like some of Ms. Tan’s other choices, register as more programmatic than organic. At times, the long shots create meaning, giving you information and giving you room and time to breathe, to look around and appreciate the very large animal dwarfing a man who seems to have shrunk inside himself; at other times, the long shots feel close to art-film mannerisms. Ms. Tan is on far stronger, truer ground when she moves away from Thana’s home life with his wife, Bo (Penpak Sirikul in a thankless, shrewish role), and leaves behind psychological explanation and matrimonial strife.
Like all road movies, “Pop Aye” also journeys into the interior lives of its characters, a trip that is aided and abetted by other travelers who briefly hop on and off: notably, a poetic squatter; a pair of bumbling cops, who bust Thana and Pop Aye for eating thrown-away melon; and a transgender woman who, with grit and dignity, is holding onto a marginal existence. Each adds another detail, a splash of color and real warmth, though I wish there was more about Pop Aye, more attention, more close-ups. He’s beautiful and heartbreaking, both because of what he adds to the story but also for all the extracinematic meaning he can’t help but bring, all the pain, all the tears.
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