Rambles

I write & shoot (photographs) occasionally

Category: Uncategorized

pop aye by kirsten tan

a heartfelt tale about a middle-aged man and his long-lost elephant who feel equally out of place in modern bangkok. to be honest, i can’t quite say why this film evoked so much emotion in me when it is not a situation that i can immediately or distinctly relate to. perhaps it makes me feel like more of an artsy person than i actually am and i like that feeling; perhaps i am at a stage in life where i am more certain about my emotional attachment to things and people. but pop aye is definitely the film that has stuck the strongest to my brain in years as i tried to pick at the countless questions that i couldn’t decipher during the course of the film itself. and i guess: is that the joy in film analysis? to come up with this whole imaginary universe that can never truly be disproven unless the director drops you a message to enlighten you on the faults of your analysis? which would probably never happen and so here goes (lots of spoilers ahead):

pop aye is a film about a man, thana, who is dissatisfied and jaded with his current life in bangkok. as an architect, he is past his prime and slowly but surely being replaced by young, confident, up-and-coming architects in his firm. as a husband, the passion in his long married life has seeped away and the director uses the disjunct between the diegetic film sound of a passionate love song and the reality of silence to bring the sterility of their relationship to the fore. one day, he chances upon an elephant he knows fondly as pop aye – the same elephant which he sold many years ago to raise the funds to move from his village to bangkok city. he is overjoyed and buys the elephant. in thailand, an elephant is traditionally regarded as a sacred symbol, and pop aye is out of place in the busy streets of bangkok where vehicles honk at its imposing presence and the quick pace of living juxtaposes its slow, steady speed. in terms of cinematography, the director of photography uses many wide shots which establish the isolation that both thana and pop aye feel, and i would describe the colours as rather muted, giving rise to a sense of disenchantment.

along his way to bring pop aye back to his village, thana meets a few different characters.  the different sequences remind me of five people you meet in heaven by mitch albom where the main character meets a series of different people after he dies. the first person thana meets is a man who is sort of a hobo but who extends his kindness to thana nevertheless, allowing thana to take anything he wants from his shack because he believes that he is going to die soon anyway. thana asks this man what his greatest wish in life would be, and the man says that he wants to take his lover from the past on a motorcycle ride around the countryside. to me, this man holds up a mirror to thana’s life in terms of the lack of romantic fulfilment. even though thana possesses a status of a successful architect whereas this man is is a hobo who resides at a rest stop, there is a core of human love and acceptance that they are both missing in their lives.

giving the man his cell phone and credit card, thana tells him to buy a motorcycle and fulfil his dream. however, the man tragically dies in a motorcycle accident, which would lead one to believe that in trying to help the man realise his dream, thana ironically led him to his death instead. yet, this death had already seemed to be foreseen by the man himself, so could thana even carry any blame in such a case of apparent predestination? yet, i feel that his death led the man to find the closure that he could not have found in life – in death, the woman he loved carried his ashes as she rode a motorcycle around the countryside. if he had been alive, it would have been difficult for her to accept him, and in his passing she found closure as well because she would no longer have to wonder about the type of life he was leading.

the second person thana meets is a transvestite, who mirrors him in that they are both past their prime in the professional life. for the transvestite, beauty has faded with age and for thana, perhaps his ideas were not as crisp as they once were. both have been superseded by youths in their own fields of interest. and although the world has turned its back on the transvestite, thana is the one who shows her empathy and overturns her embarrassment. and she returns the favour by freeing him and his elephant from the bar where they had been captured by police, strutting away and putting on her sunglasses as she momentarily regained the self-confidence she had once possessed. two souls who had had a brief connection now going their separate paths, but whose lives may have been healed in the smallest and largest of ways by their encounter.

thana continues to bring pop aye along on the road back to his village, but when he finally arrives he realises to his horror that the ground he once lived on had been converted into a modern apartment building, and that his uncle he had been looking for was living in one of these apartments. it is now seen that thana’s entire journey thus far has been rendered futile, his attempt to find closure by trying to undo his wrongdoing of selling pop aye away so many years ago is useless. it is ironic that back then he sold his elephant with so much desire for the city and now when he is repelled by the city and hoping to seek comfort in the more rural ways of the past, all he finds is that even his past has become urbanised, a reflection of the city. his past desires have all been realised but this is not what he wants anymore. in fact, thana finds no comfort in his old home except in his uncle’s young mischievous child, with whom he competes in a seed-spitting competition, seeking solace only in his childhood memories of a more rural way of life that is on the brink of disintegration.

his uncle imparts him with one more crucial bit of information: that the elephant that he had brought was not actually pop aye, who had died a few years ago. thana is crushed. there is no closure or comfort to be found in trying to undo a past regret. there is no closure from his escape from the city, no escape from his lacklustre marriage and professional life, the past no longer has her comforting arms open for him to run into like a mother embracing a son who has come home. he had been so blinded by his desire to escape back into his past, to establish a deep connection with something that he dove headfirst into a careless vision. and all that he really had now was the city – his home there, no matter how unwelcome it made him feel, was the only one for him now.

the film ends on a poignant note, as thana and his wife break into one of his iconic architectural creations that he first built and that he built for her, but which would soon be torn down to be replaced by a gleaming skyscraper constructed by a young architect. as they step through the debris and the hauntingly empty yet familiar passages, they move together. the building has seen its heyday but is now in shambles and awaiting demolition. it almost represents thana’s young dreams which had once soared so high – his eminence as an architect, his fruitfulness in his love life – but which have now crashed to the ground.

thana’s wife speaks and reveals that she had been shopping in this very building when an earthquake occurred, and that everyone was panicking but she calmly carried on shopping. she asked thana if he knew why, but he did not. because you built it and i knew that it would not fall, she said.

the young will inevitably exceed the old, just as trees with more nutrition outgrow the others. but the old, their foundations stretch deep, like roots reaching into the core of the earth – there is a sense of trust and stability that cannot be eroded.

no matter how difficult, it is only in the present that closure can be found.

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jurong spring

27/2/17

last night/ today we witnessed jurong spring from light to dark; deep night to dawning day, carried forth from our fatigue by currents of conversation. the occasional lone stranger wandering about past midnight, an aunty picking up cardboard by the tables, groups huddled on the open basketball court beside McDonald’s having late night heart to heart talks. at 1am the noodle shop uncle sieves through bean sprouts with vigorous gestures, old chinese music streaming from a radio his only companion. at 2am the aunty at the popular economical bee hoon stall chats with us as she slices luncheon meat perfectly evenly and chops up multiple baskets of vegetables; she starts work at 12am and her hands never stop moving until their food sells out at 1pm. at 3am the uncle at the 24h prata shop has only fish curry left and jokes that if he didn’t like making prata, he wouldn’t have been at his job for the past 6 years. at 4am the butcher uncle sharpens his knife in the eerie glow and shares that the only things you can never stop learning in life are values. at 5am we sit beside an aunty who owns a dried goods store; she is waiting for her son to open shop and tells us that this market is filled with friendly people, some of whom we have been blessed enough to meet.

life in rhyme (1)

23/2/17

asteroid void

unwired tired

whole hole

frank blank

vile volatile

 

 

hanoi/sapa impressions

15/12/16
taking my last look at the land where women in straw hats nonchalantly navigate bulky carts through peak hour traffic, complete with a symphony of sirens. shopping pedestrians seem to be replaced by motorists along endless shoe streets and crossing roads becomes a once-in-a-lifetime experience: slowing down, striding confidently and acting like you own the road. the lake that has grown all too familiar to us, where the brightest colours are blooming flowers in the day and warm ornamental lights at night, where the weather oscillates between sweltering 30 deg sweat stains and biting 15 degree winds and sweater weather. a gentle language vaguely reminiscent of something which we know, some faces kinder than others but only people who have been all too willing to share their stories, hopes, aspirations- vastly different from ours. lives centred around simplicity, community, happiness, even when they have had the chance to pursue more.

sapa

the rice terraces are breathtaking. in the faint fog with soft sunshine filtered in, the stretches of rice fields wave and curve in thin layers; mountains of terraces rise and fall unstoppably. i always fall behind, knowing that the view which lies behind me will never fail to invoke in me a spring of wonder, trying to capture every moment when i know clearly the camera cannot come close to imitating reality. girls munch on fresh sugarcane on tiny rocks in the river, the clear, clear water wetting our toes a little as we sit there in the sun, friends hilariously losing sugarcane to the currents. scaling precarious ledges and praying for the best, no more inhibitions as hands contact mud surfaces as long as they offer another wall of safety from the steep slopes below.

most of the time we look down at the path but when we look up, and back, an unreal view greets us. there is this small sense of awe seeing the foggy white hotel in sapa town that marked the beginning of a treacherous trek growing smaller and blurrier. drunk villagers come from a wedding, making their way about the narrow paths more skilfully than us, women deftly make the trek in rubber slippers, never missing a step, children skip about the stones with baskets on their backs, weaving together little handicrafts out of nature: straw horses with a little fluffy tails and heart shapes.

at school the children climb onto the roof and pounce onto each other without restraint, giggling and learning to ride a motorcycle although the scene might have made a Singaporean mother’s heart drop. playing five stones with real stones in church, using a plastic bottle as a bat to hit cans around- indeed anyplace and anything becomes their playground. red algae multiply over the crop waters, pregnant pigs wander into open home gates, ducklings waddle in drains swimming with trash.

faint lights shine through the slats of the little wooden house at the break of day as the roosters cry incessantly to stir us awake. who first interpreted this sound as cockle-doodle-doo? the rumble of motor engines and I look up to see patterned lines of light cast onto the roof I am sleeping under; they eventually move away from me and disappear to be replaced by darkness once more. the animals come alive first and then there is the indistinct chatter of villagers and children. ethnic minorities proudly don their traditional dress as they zoom by on motorbikes and go about their daily activities. the fresh, crisp morning air the best remedy to lift a slightly hungover head, still a little woozy from happy water and extreme hospitality from the previous night. smiling at our homestay host’s husband as he opened the gate for us, venturing out into the village in borrowed rubber slippers which all the villagers seem to have. imagining how it would feel to wake up every morning to a view, a feeling, a peacefulness quite like this, striking conversations of awe and light-hearted laughter. i can’t be persuaded to go back into the house for breakfast when i’m feeling this way; when i can feel nature’s therapy working into me and the sunlight on the fields, the roaming animals make me smile; i didn’t know it then but my longed-for tethered freedom approached its zenith.

a different kind of interview

I’m a writer for…

Would it be ok if i got a few words from u about today’s event

Do u want to introduce your organisation

And your role in it 

unaltered words hastily typed onto a tiny phone screen; i walked into a scene i could never be prepared for. after standing around under the sun for a good hour looking for people to interview, i finally decided to talk to this particular lady. immediately, she told me frankly: i’m deaf. oh. i was taken aback for a second but i whipped out my phone and started typing what i had meant to say.

what struck me about this exchange was the way we both readily inconvenienced ourselves for the sake of achieving some sort of clarity and understanding between each other- she gave up the sign language i had seen her comfortably gesture earlier as i allowed a digital, visible language to take the place of a verbal language i was accustomed to. and in that moment, both of us thought nothing about it, as instinctive as switching car gears while driving. i think that is the beauty of inclusiveness: that unconscious attitude; a lack of deliberation.

the way to the mrt

26 September 2016

once mundane; now almost novel. i hear myself loudly, self-conscious about the noisy clacking of shoes. the smell of home cooked fare wafts out of windows at lunch time and conjures thoughts of families eating together. i watch mynahs chase the yellow birds in the way we all want to run after that which is beautiful.

rainy days at home

love the rainy days experienced in the confines of the home: the pure white sky purged of all its tears, a hopeful blank page waiting to be stained with colours again, the shivery cold air that rushes through the open balcony doors and carries my spirits, the silence that remains after the storm like a heavy air that has settled over the earth, disrupted every now and then by the rumbling of a bus engine as the day’s activities quietly pick up and stir to continuation, never quite forgetting where they left off.

what i miss about home

is the conventionality of vulnerability, not having to depend on yourself all the time, being fussed over and cared for when you’re sick, lemongrass and chrysanthemum tea and all the age-old remedies mothers believe in. the constant noise and conversations, close to never a moment of silence, someone being there to answer your doubts no matter how stupid they are. the comforting, satisfying home cooked fare that no outside food can ever compare to, the relief of knowing that your meals are not a cause for worry. familiar, loved company in itself; warm hugs. the closeness of the sky, the visibility of its blueness and pinkness and all its beautiful transitions, the proximity to an entity so vast and overarching and the reminder of just how small your problems are; your bad day is. remembering my love for sunsets as i watch out my kitchen window rather than the grey grids which contain glimpses of other lives.

 

mid-autumn festival

it is in fact mid-summer in an eternally summery singapore, but today has been one of the longest days since university has started. i’m not a particularly huge celebrant of mid-autumn festival, but it’s my first one away from my family. last sunday we enjoyed the most glorious snowskin mooncakes filled with lotus paste and a champagne white chocolate core- together. today the crowd is a pretty different one.

yesterday i looked at the moon and was dismayed that the sky was foggy and the moon was but a dim spot. i was worried that the moon wouldn’t be bright, round and clear for mid-autumn festival, that it wouldn’t be the same moon i associated all mid-autumn festivals with. i wonder why.

but the moon didn’t disappoint- sure enough, today as i’m taking a long walk back to hall after the bus services have discontinued, there it is- a round glowing face beaming through the shadowy branches. it makes me happy and puts me at ease, the moon guiding the way on a quiet, eventually solitary walk, as i am led forward perhaps by a little warmth from spiced rum and old friendships rekindled. along the walk i see a couple with lit paper lanterns by the road; it warms me and i try to slow my pace and look, stay longer in that atmosphere. i haven’t seen any candles except my friend’s birthday candles today.

today, amidst the familiar countenance of the moon, there are so many new faces. mooncake sampling and impromptu, rowdy foosball matches with people i don’t know but shared many laughs with, making an impossible sprint for the bus for the longest distance and missing it, panting all the way to my very first training afterward and swearing at the red line. classes with unbelievably exaggerated vocal exercises that simply reminded me of choir days, sustained, deep, somehow personal conversations with people i never would have expected, walking back along the blue track with insects and whatnot creaking in this wilderness.