POP AYE made its debut at the Sundance Film Festival in January, so I'm a little late to the party, but I finally watched this textured charmer of a film at its UK premiere at the London Film Festival about an hour ago. I'm not sure how much I'm adding to the discussion of Singaporean filmmaker Kirsten Tan's incredibly assured first full-length feature, but here goes.
The brisk pace of urban development and buried grief over the loss of nature isn't a new theme in Singapore art-making. In fact, it's not just a preoccupation – it borders on an obsession. I'm more familiar with how this manifests in theatre-making: Jean Tay's play Boom is a ready example of a eulogy for what is lost with redevelopment, as is Haresh Sharma's Still Building, and the theatre company Drama Box has looked at land contestation from a variety of standpoints, with its It Won't Be Too Long trilogy centered around the state's reclamation of a sizeable swathe the 18th-century municipal cemetery Bukit Brown, or its IgnorLAND series focusing each time on a different displaced or overlooked community. Artists have held many farewell events in spaces soon to be demolished, including the cluster of Rochor Centre apartment blocks and an artist takeover at Eminent Plaza. We are always saying goodbye, steeped in a sort of premature nostalgia for what we didn't even have time to love and mourn.
Most of the reviews emerging in the wake of POP AYE's Sundance premiere style the film as a sort of sweet, sentimental buddy road trip between the unlikely pairing of a fading architect and a former circus elephant. It's set in Thailand, where Tan lived for several years, leaping between the thick metropolis of Bangkok and the open idyll of the Thai countryside. Its protagonist Thana, a one-time star architect whose protege seems keen on ousting him, drifts aimlessly between the frustrations of work and the dissatisfactions of domestic life. He's stuck in a long marriage that has come undone over time, but is still caught by surprise when it implodes overnight. He finds his wife's purple vibrator in the bottom of a box on the top shelf of her wardrobe, and sets it down on the coffee table in front of her. She eyes it with both guilt and disdain. And then, after a bitter encounter at work, he takes off early – and instantly recognises Popeye, an elephant with a connection to his childhood, lumbering down a narrow Bangkok alleyway in full circus regalia. Is it guilt that prompts him to buy the elephant back, or is it nostalgia? Is it the innocence of village life he craves, the uncontaminated joy of a childhood he's constructed from memory? Is he trying to reclaim something long lost in the thicket of city life?
As the adorable pair of misfits leave the city and begin their long journey into the countryside on foot, Tan leaves these questions hanging in the air. I think POP AYE isn't a road trip. It's a pilgrimage. It's also a mid-life crisis. It is Tan's homage, from a distance, to a home country that is always changing, that always changes when you leave and return. There is no empty space, no purgatory. Every inch of land has its purpose; if it has no purpose, it is given one. Every Singaporean has a story of a large, overgrown field, once the site of soccer games and kites, parcelled out to make room for multiple sets of condominiums. Tan's camera lingers lovingly on Thailand's lush rural spaces, its rolling fields and pink sunsets. And Thana clings to Popeye, who's either chained or relegated to a multitude of objects in quick succession (a set of shopping carts, a tree, the back of several trucks, followed by a police car, and of course, Thana himself), afraid to let go of the one thing that reminds him that life can still be what it used to be, when it was shinier, and happier. But things fall apart and the centre cannot hold, and as Thana embarks on his kora to look for a home he forgot he lost, he finds that memory can also be a tricky, tricking thing.
POP AYE is Tan's allegory for a Singapore aged 52 and unsure about its history. Setting the story in Thailand – a safe distance away, but close enough to home – makes it feel like more of a parable for Singapore's faulty nostalgia, its unreliable memory of a 'better' past and the meaning it over-invests in symbols and kitsch memorabilia. But POP AYE is also a reminder of Singapore's desperation for the new and the cutting-edge at the expense of everything else. Close to the end of the film, there's an ad for a snazzy new skyscraper by Thana's architectural firm, a showy phallus towering over the rest of the city – not unlike the purple dildo on Thana's coffee table. What is Singapore constantly trying to prove? There's no moralising here, and the film's conclusion is open enough for wide-ranging interpretations.
So much is packed into this warm, meditative film. There are some moments of stasis, but Tan keeps the pair's (mis)adventure moving smoothly as they encounter other misfits who have fallen between the cracks, forgotten as the rest of the country – or anyone younger, prettier, smarter, richer, hungrier – has swept along. Despite some heavy-handed imagery, with the elephant an obvious metaphor for everything from lost innocence to adult loneliness to urban alienation, it's hard not to feel a deep affection for Bong the elephant, seduced by bananas and durians to play the part of Popeye, and his palpable bond with lead actor Thaneth Warakulnukroh (turning in a wonderful, understated performance). POP AYE invites us to take time for ourselves and make time for others, to take detours when we can, to make mistakes and circle back on them, to keep walking.
- POP AYE is showing today (October 6, ICA London) and tomorrow (October 7, VUE Leicester Square) as part of the London Film Festival. Tickets available here.