Pop Aye


Never get between a man and his elephant.

(2017) Drama (Kino Lorber) Thaneth Warakulnukroh, Penpak Sirikul, Bong, Chaiwat Khumdee, Naronng Pongpab, Yukontorn Sukkijja. Directed by Kirsten Tan

Sometimes we get feelings in our lives that threaten to overwhelm us, feelings we just can’t ignore. They become the elephant in the room, that feeling like we don’t fit in any longer or never fit in, that life has somehow managed to pass us by. Sometimes it takes a desperate action to get our lives back in order.

Thana (Warakulnukroh) is an architect who no longer feels at home in the firm he helped put on the map. Once a brilliant, bright shining future, he designed Gardenia Square, a shopping center which is now slated for demolition a mere twenty years after it was built. The son of his former boss now runs things and has replaced most of the architects with younger men who look at Thana as something of a dinosaur whose only use is to provide files.

Things are bad at home as well. His wife Bo (Sirikul) no longer seems attracted to Thana – and to be fair, his attempts at seduction are mostly awkward. Bo lives to shop and while her husband was a well-respected architect, there were plenty of things to buy. These days she knows she’s married to a man widely regarded as a fool and their marriage is a shell that isn’t going to last much longer. She seems shallow when we first meat her but as the movie goes on we see that there are heretofore hidden depths that explain her actions somewhat.

One day in the streets of Bangkok Thana spies an elephant (Bong) who he believes to be the elephant that he once had as a boy in the village of Loei, some 300 miles northeast of Bangkok. Nicknamed Popeye after a favorite cartoon of his as a youth (he trained the elephant to do the “toot toot” at the end of the “I’m Popeye the sailor man” theme), the elephant is mostly a means of making a quick buck for the mahout that owns him. Wanting more for his beloved elephant, Thana buys him on the spot and tries to bring him home but Bo is not having it.

Instead, Thana who has grown tired and disillusioned with city life decides to return to Loei where Thana’s Uncle Peak (Pongpab) will care for the creature. He and Popeye begin a journey from the bustling city of Bangkok into rural Thailand where they will meet a bevy of eccentric characters, including a transgender woman named Jenny (Sukkijja) who Thana treats with some compassion and who eventually gets a chance to return the favor, Dee (Khumdee), a gregarious homeless man living in an abandoned gas station who knows that his days are numbered but only regrets having left the love of his life whom he wishes to connect with one last time and a pair of officious police officers who are trying to move Thana and Popeye to the police station for “violating urban tidiness” even though the cops encounter the two on a road in the middle of nowhere.

All of these encounters serve to help Thana grow into a different man, one at peace with the disappointments of his life. While it may be true, as Thomas Hardy once put it, that you can never go home again, Thana finds out the secret to life; home is where you are at.

Tan was born in Singapore and has lived in a variety of places including Thailand where she worked as a t-shirt vendor on the streets of Bangkok. Now based in New York after attending the Tisch School of Visual Arts, she has made several impressive shorts. This is her feature-length film debut and it is a strong one. The movie has a gentle kind of surrealism to it that makes of unusual situations a kind of normality that makes them more palatable to the viewer. There is a sense of humor throughout but it is a gentle one, more of a chuckle than a guffaw at the ridiculousness of life.

The cast is mainly unprofessional but they do a fair enough job in conveying the various eccentricities of the various characters involved.  Warakulnukroh, a former progressive rock musician, manages to convey the puzzlement of Thana as he moves through a life that has left him behind. I don’t get the sense that he’s trying to adjust very much; he seems to be fairly bothered by the situation but doesn’t seem too motivated to change things until Popeye shows up. Khumdee also has some quiet moments that are compelling in his all-too-brief appearance here.

Most important here is the elephant and he is more expressive than a lot of human actors I’ve seen. I’ve never had the privilege of looking directly into the eyes of an elephant but there is a wisdom and sadness locked in those pachyderm eyes, an emotion that conveys empathy for the plight of Thana and by extension, himself. In many ways, Popeye is our avatar, marching slowly and resolutely towards an end that is pre-ordained but not necessarily without surprise. It is indeed the journey and not the destination since we’re all headed the same way anyway.

The movie is pretty slow-paced and might have benefited from some shorter more concise scenes particularly in the middle third. Keep in mind that an elephant never gets anywhere from anywhere else quickly so your best bet is to sit back and just enjoy the ride and that’s really good advice for watching any movie like Pop Aye. Allow it to wash over you and immerse you in its gently skewed universe. The ending is a little unexpected which is most appreciated, and you never really know what’s around the next bend in the road. All good journeys are like that.

REASONS TO GO: The film has a low-key sense of humor. The elephant is a keeper.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie is a touch too long and may be too slow-paced for some viewers. Some characters just fade from the movie without explanation.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some sexual situations as well as brief nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Tan won the screenwriting award at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, becoming the first filmmaker from Singapore to win an award at the prestigious event.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/15/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: 81/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Walkabout
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: I Don’t Feel at Home In this World Anymore

Before You Know It


Ty at the crossroads of his life.

Ty at the crossroads of his life.

(2013) Documentary (Unraveled) Robert “The Mouth,” Ty, Dennis. Directed by PJ Raval

Florida Film Festival 2014

Prior to the Stonewall Riots of 1969 in New York, there was no Gay Liberation. Gay men were marginalized as freaks and sissies and were subject to harassment, bullying and arrest without cause. The courts treated gay men – and women – with contempt.

Fast-forward forty-plus years. The men of that era are senior citizens now. The world is changing around them, much of it due to the hard work and organizing of their generation. Some of them had a hand in those changes themselves.

Ty, for example, remains an activist with SAGE, a group that creates a space where the elderly gay can gather, socialize and let off steam in a safe environment. He is based in Harlem, which as he notes has no gay bars. New York is on the cusp of legalizing gay marriage and they are heady times in the Empire State. At a local street fair celebrating the African-American experience, SAGE sets up a booth. Ty is a bit worried how the straight black citizens will react but as it turns out they are much more accepting than he expects.

Ty, like his peers, is overjoyed when the state ratifies same sex marriages but that leads to a different sort of situation. His partner, Stanton, is not so sure he wants to get married. Both Ty and Stanton are getting on in age and Stanton thinks that a wedding at their age would be superfluous, a point of view that Ty doesn’t agree with at all. However, Stanton seems to be open to keeping the lines of communication on the subject open.

Dennis splits his time between Niceville, Florida and Portland, Oregon in a retirement home geared towards gay and lesbian residents. His family in Florida isn’t aware of his sexual orientation; he was married for many years to a woman who was aware that Dennis liked (and continues to like) to dress up in women’s clothing. When he’s in full drag he calls himself Dee and reminded me a little too uncomfortably much of my mother-in-law, facially.

It wasn’t until after his wife passed away that Dennis finally felt free to explore his sexuality as a gay man and it seems like he is being pulled slowly out of his shell by the open and accepting population of Rainbow Ridge, the retirement home in Portland. He signs up for a gay cruise and even marches in a gay pride parade in Portland. Feeling neglected and forgotten by his family in Florida, he seems ready to sever ties and take up full-time residence with his new family in Portland.

Robert “the Mouth” has known he was gay from an early age. He is the owner of Robert’s Lafitte bar in Galveston which has become something of a home for the drag queens and gay men of the area. His nephew helps Robert run the bar although Robert still continues to perform occasionally in the drag show that the bar continues to present regularly.

Robert’s health is failing, due in large part to a lawsuit being brought against the bar because a patron of the bar drove home drunk and got into an accident, killing the members of the family bringing the suit against the bar. While there is some evidence that the patron in question may have stopped at another bar to drink further, Robert’s nephew is fully aware that if they lose the suit, the bar will have to close, leaving a lot of locals without a home.

The stories are blended together nicely without giving any one of the three short shrift. All three of the stories are compelling but none more than that of Robert. He is as lively and outrageous a queen as you’re likely to meet but despite the acerbic comments and insults he dishes out with great glee, there’s a big heart there. He has a big personality and a big wit. He’s the kind of guy you want at every party.

Ty is more the grandfatherly sort, a man who wears his wisdom on his sleeve. He’s not really the flamboyant sort but he is passionate about his cause and works very hard to make the world a better place – at least his corner of it – for the gay men and women of his community. I admire him tremendously after seeing his story here.

I was struck by Dennis’ loneliness. He seems to be a man who has been in a cocoon for most of his life and is just beginning to peer out and realize that he’s a butterfly, but there’s a shyness to him that’s endearing and a little sad. There are times he seems to be waiting for something to happen for him; I hope that he gets the self-confidence to make something happen.

I wish that Raval had been a bit more judicious in the editing bay. He spends too long on the three Gay Pride parades that he covers (well, one’s a Mardi Gras parade but still) and he tends to linger on certain scenes a little more than he needs to.

Still, the stories are compelling enough to be worth a look. Each one brought out a different emotion in me; joy in the case of Robert “The Mouth” (a cultural icon waiting to happen if ever I saw one), sympathy in the case of Dennis/Dee and respect and admiration in the case of Ty. These are three men who I wouldn’t mind spending time with, gay or straight. At a certain point, sexual orientation doesn’t matter because in the end that’s just a label – it’s the person behind the label that does.

While the movie is still playing the Festival circuit, for those who are unable to attend a screening it is available on DVD from the film’s website which you can get to by clicking on the picture at the top of the review.

REASONS TO GO: Fascinating stories. Robert “The Mouth” bound to become a cultural icon if this gets any sort of distribution.

REASONS TO STAY: Runs a little bit too long.

FAMILY VALUES:  Some nudity and some bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film debuted at the 2013 South by Southwest Film Festival.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/6/14: Rotten Tomatoes: no score yet. Metacritic: no score yet.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: And the Band Played On

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Ernest and Celestine