Just to be clear, the title character of this film actually spells and pronounces its name “Popeye,” like the famous, spinach-eating cartoon sailor, but because there’s already a movie called Popeye, I’m guessing the filmmakers didn’t want there to be any confusion. By the way, the character named Popeye is an elephant, and it takes on a great significance for a middle-aged Thai man whose road through the rest of his life seems all-too predictable.
Marking her feature debut, writer-director Kirsten Tan tells the story of Thana (Thaneth Warakulnukroh), an older but quite successful architect in Bangkok who finds that he’s still well regarded at work but is getting pushed aside for some of his firm’s higher-profile jobs. To make matters worse, his relationship with his wife Bo (Penpak Sirikul) has been reduced to bitterness and disinterest. By pure chance he stumbles onto the sale of an elephant named Popeye that he knew growing up and he purchases the beautiful creature to do…something with. He’s not quite sure it seems like. But the gesture seems to be the first of many that seem spontaneous, occasionally ill-advised, but ultimately Thana decides to take Popeye back to the farm where they first met, so Pop Aye becomes a very different kind of road movie.
Along the way, the pair meet and have encounters with a homeless man with a mysterious past, a kind but tragic trans prostitute, and a pair of police officers who want to bring the elephant in for not being licensed but lose interest in the case when real police work comes their way. Pop Aye has an underlying melancholy to it, but it finds time to be sweet, understated and quite funny, and by the end of the film, a genuine friendship builds between man and animal.
Ultimately, Pop Aye could have featured a more conventional animals at its center, but having it be an elephant adds a hint of danger to the equation that makes it all that much more interesting. And because no one in the film seems especially shocked when they see an elephant walking down the street or through a field with or without a caretaker (Popeye does manage to escape a few times), we get used to it pretty quickly as well. This is a gentle, lovely little movie that tells a simple story that doesn’t get bogged down in plot. Both elephant and man feel like fully realized characters, who have lived full lives and found each other again just when they needed it most. I can’t promise you’ll cry, but you’ll find it impossible not to be moved by this one.
The film opens today at the Music Box Theatre.