In Pop Aye’s opening scene, a Bangkok architect walks down an empty road with Popeye, a circus elephant. The pairing of solitary businessman and elephant will look familiar to anyone who recalls 1996’s Larger Than Life, the PG-rated road film staring Bill Murray as a motivational speaker who inherits an elephant from his father. But Pop Aye distances itself from the high-concept and family-oriented foundations of such a Hollywood studio production through sequences that structure this road trip around encounters with contemporary life in the Thai provinces. While these dimensions are certainly preferable to scenes of Murray ordering an entire salad bar to go in the former film, Pop Aye remains beholden to both the rhetoric and recipe of quirk-fueled redemption through creaky formations of Thana’s status as a man whose failing marriage makes him question the totality of his existence.
Writer-director Kirsten Tan structures Thana’s midlife crisis around a jumbled chronology that leaps backward in time at numerous junctures to explain preceding passages. The first such sequence reveals Thana’s mounting obsolescence, both as an architect and player within his firm, where younger members schedule meetings with potential clients behind Thana’s back. At home, when he finds a sex toy in his wife’s nightstand, it’s a sight of heartbreak and, it would appear, the moment when Thana officially breaks. Tan nicely encapsulates Thana’s shock through his preference for passive-aggressive confrontation; instead of walking into his living room and having a conversation about it, Thana places the toy on a coffee table, takes a seat, and waits for his distracted wife to notice its (and his) presence.
Such scenes are on short order in Pop Aye, which too quickly opts out of its Scenes from a Marriage-like potential for what amounts to an augmented take on David Lynch’s The Straight Story, with Thana slowly marching an elephant he believes to be a childhood favorite back to his hometown on the other side of Thailand to meet his uncle, Peak (Narong Pongpab). Whereas Lynch’s film finds the pulse of the American heartland through its protagonist’s peculiar combination of assertiveness and repression, Pop Aye takes a more conventional route by staging a series of run-ins with various Thai locals who help Thana reclaim a portion of his wounded pride.
The most significant of these figures is Jenny (Yukontorn Sukkijja), a transgender woman who Thana meets at a roadside bar. Tan establishes their rapport as one of camaraderie bred through a silent recognition of difference. Thana can only empathize with Jenny via recollections of his own wife, which Tan sprinkles throughout their exchanges with nods toward his selfishness. However, rather than utilizing their meeting to interrogate Thana’s feelings about his emotional and sexual inadequacies, the scene too quickly shifts to its more rousing potential, as when the two perform a karaoke duet.
Part of what makes Pop Aye falter on a conceptual level is Popeye, whose presence seldom rises above minor ironies and serves as a placeholder for Thana’s own crisis of identity and purpose. In fact, it’s Thana who thwarts an early attempt by the pair to hitchhike by refusing to obey the urination laws of an accommodating driver. Much of Thana’s incompetence stems from his regression into a childlike state when faced with his deteriorating status as a professional, to the extent that he joins a group of local children in watching an episode of the animated series Popeye the Sailor, and then proceeds to hum the theme throughout the next day.
As Thana’s trek winds to a close, the film opts for a kindness toward him that’s only satisfying to a point, primarily because Tan ignores the darker implications that Thana’s reversion to nostalgia implies for both himself and how a culture deals with shifting tides on both personal and political levels. Since Thana more or less gets a pass, Pop Aye winds up endorsing his frustrations and subsequent response instead of interrogating them.