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.