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Kirsten Tan's surreal road movie 'Pop Aye' stars an elephant and the 'Mick Jagger of Asia'

by Paola Mardo | The Frame

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Actor Thaneth Warakulnukroh (left) and writer-director Kirsten Tan with Bong the elephant on the set of "Pop Aye." Courtesy Kirsten Tan

For her debut feature film, “Pop Aye,” writer-director Kirsten Tan originally wanted to make a road movie starring just an elephant. But knowing that would be nearly impossible, she added a human character to take the elephant on its journey. The human just so happens to be played by Thaneth Warakulnukroh, a Thai rocker with Mick Jagger qualities.

The resulting film is an absurd and, at times, surreal adventure.

Set in Thailand, “Pop Aye” is the story of an architect named Thana (Warakulnukroh) who’s considered past his prime and whose greatest architectural achievement will soon be demolished and replaced. His marriage is also crumbling, with a wife (Penpak Sirikul) who seems content with spending her time shopping rather than with him.

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In a twist of fate, Thana reunites with his childhood friend, an elephant named Pop Aye, on the streets of Bangkok. He embarks on a journey through rural Thailand to return Pop Aye to his home village. Along the way, they meet a cast of unusual characters literally off the beaten path.

“Pop Aye” premiered at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, where it was the first film from Sngapore selected for competition. It also won a screenwriting award.

When Tan stopped by The Frame, she talked about how she lived with elephants in Thailand and eventually found her star, an elephant named Bong:

I met Bong on my research trip in Thailand. I went to this small town called Surin. It’s in the northeast of Thailand. I did the research trip because I wanted to be close to an elephant, to know them enough on an authentic level so I could write them properly.

Tan says she was initially skeptical to cast Bong in the role of Pop Aye because he was too beautiful. She originally wanted an “indie” looking elephant that would evoke pity. But once she met Bong, she knew he was the one:

Bong was actually the first elephant I met. Eventually I saw close to a hundred elephants. But somehow none of the moved me the way Bong moved me.

I still remember distinctively the first moment I met him. I was just completely blown away, I guess. I think I was about five feet away from him and as he looked at me I could totally feel his generosity of spirit, this kindness, this benevolent gaze. Yeah, I was just really, really moved in that moment and I felt instantly we had [a] connection.

Actors Thaneth Warakulnukroh (left) and Yukontorn Sukkijja on the set of "Pop Aye."
Actors Thaneth Warakulnukroh (left) and Yukontorn Sukkijja on the set of "Pop Aye." Kino Lorber

Bong's co-star is Thaneth Warakulnukroh, a former rock singer in the 1970s. Though Warakulnukroh had been out of the music scene for some time, Tan says his rockstar roots made him perfect for the role of Thana:

When I met Thaneth, it was just really surprising because he was so different from anything I've Googled of him. In the '70s, he had long hair, he [seemed] like the Mick Jagger of Asia, and then when I saw him … he seemed so kind, polite, reserved. But somehow this juxtaposition was very interesting to me. And it felt to me, like, here's someone who has lived a very storied and colorful life, someone who's experienced the ups, the downs. When the time came for the audition and I put him in front of a camera, he was just super natural. And I think, in part, because he is a performer.

Tan says because the film’s story hinged on the chemistry between Bong and Thaneth, she made them live together for two weeks before filming:

Once I finished casting both of them, I got them to stay together in Surin. They would take like long walks together in the morning, in the evenings, and I made them do directing exercises together too. I did some simple scenes with them and I got [Thaneth] to sometimes lay down beside Bong, got him to touch Bong. So then on a tactile, physical level, they were very comfortable with each other already before filming started.

Writer-director Kirsten Tan and Bong on the set of "Pop Aye."
Writer-director Kirsten Tan and Bong on the set of "Pop Aye." Kirsten Tan

Tan grew up in Singapore, has lived in South Korea and Thailand, but now makes her home in New York. She says her experiences traveling to different parts of the world influenced the making of the film:

I feel like that is why it's almost inevitable that my first feature would be a road movie, just because I'm so into the road — I think both literally and metaphorically. For me, it's really about reaching a place than being at the place itself. The search of a place is, for me, the most romantic experience.

 “Pop Aye” is indeed influenced by the American cartoon “Popeye,” which Tan says she grew up watching. It's also a popular nickname used in Thailand, which Tan says speaks to a greater influence that she hints at it in the film:

It speaks to ... a kind of ... American cultural imperialism of Southeast Asia. And how we are so extremely influenced by American TV, entertainment — everything until we don't realize it and [we] name things based off those cultural products.

To hear John Horn’s interview with Kirsten Tan, click on the player above.

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