Tiong Bahru Social Club review

For F*** Magazine

Director: Tan Bee Thiam
Cast : Thomas Pang, Goh Guat Kian, Jalyn Han, Noorlinah Mohamed, Jo Tan, Munah Bagharib
Genre: Comedy/Drama/Sci-fi
Run Time : 88 min
Opens : 10 December 2020
Rating : NC16

How does one measure happiness? We know when we feel happy or unhappy, but are there empirical values that can be attached to that? In this Singaporean satirical comedy-drama, the idea of what it would take to make the happiest community in the world is explored.

Ah Bee (Thomas Pang) lives with his mother Mui (Goh Guat Kian) in the Pearl Bank apartment complex. Now 30, Ah Bee must step out on his own. He joins the Tiong Bahru Social Club, an experimental community, as a Happiness Agent. Overseen by manager Haslinna (Noorlinah Mohammed), all the residents of the community wear a ring that monitors their happiness levels and are constantly surveilled. Ah Bee is assigned to care for his senior client, Ms Wee (Jalyn Han), an eccentric cat lady who doesn’t buy into the whole “happiest society on earth” rhetoric. Ah Bee meets other Happiness Agents, including Geok (Jo Tan) and Orked (Munah Bagharib), but he soon finds that this almost-cult of enforced happiness might not be the best place for him, and must figure out if he belongs in Tiong Bahru Social Club.

This reviewer will admit to often not being very interested in local movies. Tiong Bahru Social Club is one of the most fascinating Singaporean movies in recent memory. It is meticulously designed and shot, has something to say, and is genuinely funny. Director Tan Bee Thiam displays confidence as a filmmaker, while cinematographer and editor Looi Wan Ping constructs an aesthetically pleasing film that’s beautiful to look at even as things feel increasingly off.

The semi-sci-fi elements, including an artificial intelligence assistant named BRAVO60, and the “quirky” dream sequences are all there in just the right amounts, such that one element of the movie doesn’t overwhelm another. Despite how deliberately mannered Tiong Bahru Social Club looks and feels, it is unmistakably authentic. This hits the sweet spot of being something that will resonate with many Singaporean viewers while also being accessible to international viewers. Beyond that, this movie will give international viewers unique, focused insight into Singaporean society unlike anything else.

Tiong Bahru Social Club has great characters, but is not necessarily plot-driven, though this is by design. Director Tan is keenly aware of the tone of the film at all times – the movie’s “happiness cult” is wont to remind audiences of movies like Sorry to Bother You, but it never gets genuinely dark. Upsetting perhaps, but never horrifying, when some viewers might be willing the movie to fully embrace that darkness as it reaches its conclusion, so it helps to bear in mind that this is not Black Mirror. While it is enjoyable, the movie does feel longer than its 88-minute runtime and can sometimes come across as a little too self-conscious, the way many deliberately designed movies do.

Thomas Pang makes for a great agreeable ‘blank slate’ lead character, while actors like Jo Tan and Munah Bagharib create characters who are odd but likeable, and whom audiences understand are struggling with something under the surface. Noorlinah Mohammed’s Stepfordian turn as Haslinna is the right amount of annoyingly corporate and insincere. Both Goh Guat Kian and Jalyn Han give the sometimes-outlandish movie a good degree of grounding. Veteran theatre practitioner Han is especially entertaining as a cantankerous cat-loving lady who sees through all the bulls**t and who enjoys ordering Ah Bee about.

One of the many fascinating things about Tiong Bahru Social Club is that it is cowritten by Tan and Antti Toivonen, who moved from Finland to Singapore 11 years ago. According to the 2020 World Happiness Report, Helsinki, Finland was ranked the happiest city in the world, with Singapore coming in at 49th. Toivonen himself has acknowledged that many Finns would disagree with the findings of the report, but then again, the grass is always greener etc. Singapore’s never-ending march of progress means that humanity can get lost in the shuffle – the recent demolition of the Pearl Bank Apartment complex, where Ah Bee and his mother live at the beginning of the film, is emblematic of this.

This film captures that Singaporean obsession with measuring and quantifying everything – everything can be used to judge someone’s value, and everyone’s always sizing everyone else up. As such, it can feel extremely repressive and stifling. The film’s wry observation of this strongly resonated with this reviewer.

Tiong Bahru Social Club will appeal to cinephiles and film students who are preoccupied with things like shot composition, lighting and transitions. More importantly, it also uniquely captures the Singaporean fixation with turning everything, however intangible and ephemeral, into a Key Performance Indicator. This is that rare arthouse film that is thoroughly accessible and enjoyable.

Summary: Tiong Bahru Social Club is a charming, witty and visually pleasing satirical comedy that succinctly captures the Singaporean obsession with measuring and assigning empirical value to abstract things. This is the most striking, memorable and enjoyable local film in a long time. There’s also a cat named Mochi, who gets credited on the poster and in the end titles.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Jojo Rabbit review

For F*** Magazine

JOJO RABBIT

Director: Taika Waititi
Cast : Roman Griffin Davis, Thomasin McKenzie, Taika Waititi, Sam Rockwell, Scarlett Johansson, Rebel Wilson, Alfie Allen, Stephen Merchant, Archie Yates
Genre : Comedy/Drama
Run Time : 1 h 48 mins
Opens : 2 January 2020
Rating : PG13

While he’s had a long career in his native New Zealand, Taika Waititi has become a hot property in Hollywood over the last several years. What We Do in the Shadows and Hunt for the Wilderpeople earned Waititi widespread acclaim, and he has had mainstream success with Thor: Ragnarok, in which he also played the character of Korg. Waititi turns his attention to World War II with this adaptation of Christine Leunens’ novel Caging Skies.

It is towards the end of the Second World War. Johannes “Jojo” Beltzer (Roman Griffin Davis) is a member of the Hitler Youth and an unabashed Hitler fanboy, living in Germany with his mother Rosie (Scarlett Johansson). Jojo is an outcast who is mocked for refusing to kill a rabbit during a Hitler Youth camp activity. His only friend is Yorki (Archie Yates), also a member of the Hitler Youth. That’s not technically true – Jojo does have another friend: an imaginary version of Adolf Hitler (Taika Waititi). Captain Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell), who runs the Hitler Youth camp, takes a liking to Jojo despite initially dismissing him as unsuitable to be a soldier. However, Jojo’s resolve and loyalty to the Nazi ideals is shaken when he discovers his mother is hiding a young Jewish girl named Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie) in the attic of their house.

Jojo Rabbit is a movie that plays to all Taika Waititi’s strengths as a writer, director and performer, allowing him to put his stamp on it and make the movie something that is distinctly his. The film is a satire that aims to undercut the superficial cool factor that some perceive the Nazis as having by mocking them – this is a not a new idea. After all, Charlie Chaplin wrote, directed and starred in The Great Dictator in 1940. However, Jojo Rabbit presents the point of view of children who were growing up in Nazi Germany. There is an innocence and earnestness to the film which is married to an understanding of the horrors of war, and specifically of the Third Reich.

Jojo Rabbit is sometimes uncomfortable, but perhaps necessarily so. The film has been described as Waititi juggling a live grenade for 108 minutes, but the point of the movie is not to be audacious or to be shocking. While it can get very bleak, the film is largely a gentle, sensitive treatise on how hate is fostered and how it can be defused. The remarkable performances (more on that in a bit) give the film its beating heart.

The movie was shot on location in Prague and other locations in the Czech Republic. The cinematography by Mihai Mălaimare Jr. and music by Michael Giacchino all give Jojo Rabbit the feel of a prestige film, but because of its humorous tone and Waititi’s deft directorial touch, the movie never feels like it’s putting on airs just for awards season.

Jojo Rabbit has garnered controversy, with some critics saying the film should not be portraying the Nazis in a comical manner, even to mock them. After all, Chaplin himself wrote in his 1964 autobiography that had he been aware of the Nazi concentration camps at the time, he would not have made The Great Dictator. Steven Spielberg portrayed the Nazis as cartoon villains in the Indiana Jones films, but he said he could no longer view them that way after making Schindler’s List. Jojo Rabbit is tonally challenging, but this reviewer would argue that there is a sensitivity to the way horrific historical events are depicted, and that Waititi has succeeded in using humour judiciously. Some critics have also argued that the film should not portray any Nazis sympathetically, when Sam Rockwell’s character is depicted in a largely positive light.

Jojo Rabbit is the story of a makeshift family. Jojo’s sister Inge has died, and Elsa was a schoolmate and friend of Inge’s. In a way, Elsa is a surrogate daughter to Rosie and a surrogate sister to Jojo. Waititi has said that he intended the film to be a love letter to his mother and a tribute to single parents everywhere.

The relationships between these three characters are rendered with sublime beauty. Scarlett Johansson gives one of the finest performances of her career, essaying both strength and warmth. Thomasin McKenzie is an immensely watchable livewire and a gifted performer whom the camera loves.

However, it is Roman Griffin Davis who does the most heavy lifting and who carries the movie. The character’s arc from being obsessed with all things Nazi and unquestioning of the party line to realising that maybe Jews don’t have tails and horns and aren’t so different than he is plays out in a credible way, despite the movie’s over the top touches.

Taika Waititi’s portrayal of Hitler is buffoonish and amusing, but there’s also quite a bit of nuance to it. This isn’t Hitler the historical figure – this is a young boy’s idealised version of Hitler, part father figure, part best friend. This is Jiminy Cricket if he told Pinnochio to do the worst things. This distance gives Waititi the freedom to play a character that does not need to be historically accurate. Waititi deliberately did no research on the real Hitler. Waititi is a Polynesian Jew and said of someone with his heritage playing a version of Hitler, “what better f*** you to that guy?”.

Summary: A moving, funny and beautifully acted comedy drama, Jojo Rabbit is a movie that near-perfectly juggles all its disparate elements. This is awards season fare that rises above the average ‘Oscar bait’ because of a daring yet sensitive approach to the material. Roman Griffin Davis, Thomasin McKenzie and Scarlett Johansson all deliver performances that are some of the year’s best, while this is the best showcase for Taika Waititi as writer, director and performer yet.

RATING: 4.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Last Christmas review

For F*** Magazine

LAST CHRISTMAS

Director: Paul Feig
Cast : Emilia Clarke, Henry Golding, Michelle Yeoh, Emma Thompson, Lydia Leonard, Boris Isakovic, Peter Serafinowicz, Rob Delaney, Patti LuPone
Genre : Drama, Comedy
Run Time : 1 h 43 mins
Opens : 28 November 2019
Rating: NC16

Wham!’s “Last Christmas” is an infectiously inescapable ditty during the Holiday Season. This comedy directed by Paul Feig of Bridesmaids and Spy fame and co-written by Emma Thompson is inspired by the song. What plot can be mined from the lyrics of this beloved Christmas song/breakup anthem?

Kate (Emilia Clarke) has been plagued by a string of bad luck. She works in a shop selling Christmas decorations and is constantly berated by her boss “Santa” (Michelle Yeoh). She has had several one-night stands end disastrously, unsuccessfully auditioned for various shows on the West End and is a burden on all her friends. Kate doesn’t have the best relationship with her family who immigrated to the UK from former Yugoslavia and is always being nagged at by her mother Adelia (Emma Thompson). Kate’s luck seems to change when she meets Tom (Henry Golding), a cheerful young man who is always telling her to “look up”. However, she can’t quite figure Tom out or pin him down. Tom guides Kate on a journey of self-discovery as she attempts to put her life back together.

Last Christmas is sometimes charming thanks to a role that fits Emilia Clarke well and because of its Christmastime London setting. Londoners will be the first to tell you that it isn’t the most romantic city in the world, but when dressed up in fairy lights and shot by John Schwartzman, it is very pretty. The Yuletide store where Kate works is in Covent Garden, and Last Christmas depicts London in full-on fairy tale winter wonderland mode.

In addition to Clarke, the cast is good. Michelle Yeoh has a knack for playing characters who are outwardly stern but ultimately good-hearted, as her “Santa” character is here. Henry Golding is every inch the dashing, sweet and confident rom-com leading man. Emma Thompson’s role is largely comedic, but there’s also some sadness and unarticulated frustration there that she plays well.

Musical theatre fans will also enjoy the random cameo by Broadway superstar Patti LuPone, which she likely filmed while doing Company on the West End in 2018.

Last Christmas utterly overdoses on twee. It is trying to be reminiscent of Love Actually, but the story is all over the place and the movie seems to think it is much cleverer than it really is.

Clarke may be trying her best and she may suit the part well, but Kate as a character often borders on annoying. The by-now tired “manic pixie dream girl” archetype seems to apply to both Kate and Tom here. Kate is klutzy and dysfunctional, while Tom opens her eyes to the magic that is all around her and that she’s just never noticed. Sharing the cliché between two characters doesn’t make it any less of a cliché.

If you go back to look at the comments sections for this film’s early trailers, you can see people call the big reveal even back then. The movie’s twist has been done before and been done much better, such that when we’re told what has really been happening, it’s more likely to induce eye-rolls than gasps.

The screenplay was written by Thompson and Bryrony Kimmings, with Thompson and her husband Greg Wise receiving screen story credit. There are several ideas in the script that barely get explored, including that of the immigrant experience in the UK, especially in the aftermath of the Brexit referendum, as well as how the homeless and less fortunate spend their holidays. Kimmings is an artist known for her socially conscious work and one can tell that there is an attempt to make Last Christmas more meaningful than your average romantic comedy, but none of this really gels together.

In addition to “Last Christmas”, various other George Michael songs appear in the movie. The Kate character is a huge George Michael fan, and the film begins with a young Kate singing “Heal the Pain” with a church choir. The film also includes a previously unreleased track, “This Is How (We Want You To Get High)”. While the filmmakers’ affection for Michael’s music is palpable, it isn’t integrated into the storytelling that well. A key plot point is inspired by a horrifyingly literal reading of one George Michael lyric which is far more morbid than sweet.

If you love George Michael and have romantic fantasies about Covent Garden in the winter, maybe you’ll get something out of this, but otherwise this is an incredibly muddled romantic comedy that is a strange and discordant mishmash.

Summary: Last Christmas attempts to turn the romcom formula on its head, but by introducing various other elements into the mix, we end up with a Christmas pudding that leaves an odd aftertaste.

RATING: 2 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

The Farewell review

For F*** Magazine

THE FAREWELL

Director: Lulu Wang
Cast : Awkwafina, Tzi Ma, Diana Lin, Zhao Shuzhen, Lu Hong, Jiang Yongbo, Chen Han, Aoi Mizuhara
Genre : Drama/Comedy
Run Time : 100 mins
Opens : 3 October 2019
Rating : PG

Nora “Awkwafina” Lum has burst onto the scene in a big way. Starting out as a rapper, Awkwafina recently appeared in high-profile films like Crazy Rich Asians and Ocean’s Eight. She will next be seen in Jumanji: The Next Level, with roles in the live-action remake of The Little Mermaid and Marvel’s Shang-Chi lined up. Awkwafina is known for her brash, comedic onscreen persona, but it wasn’t long before she would get a tour de force dramatic showcase to prove her versatility as an actor. The Farewell is that showcase.

Billi Wang’s (Awkwafina) family moved from China to the US when she was six. Billi has been struggling to make it as an artist and moves back in with her parents Haiyan (Tzi Ma) and Jian (Diana Lin). They tell Billi that her paternal grandmother ‘Nai Nai’ (Zhao Shuzhen) has been diagnosed with stage four lung cancer. However, the extended family has made a pact to hide this from Nai Nai, so she can live out her remaining months without worry. Under the pretences of a wedding between cousin Hao Hao (Chen Han) and his girlfriend Aiko (Aoi Mizuhara), the family reunites in Changchun to see Nai Nai one last time. Billi wrestles with the dilemma of whether she should tell her beloved Nai Nai the truth, as she is confronted with the realities of Chinese traditions and societal expectations after having lived in the US for most of her life.

The Farewell is a remarkable piece of storytelling – moving, involving and gently funny without being overwrought. Writer-director Lulu Wang has a fantastic ear for dialogue and a confident yet light directorial hand, creating a film that is filled with relatable scenarios and yet has a specificity to it that only someone with that cultural background could bring to the movie. Wang was fiercely protective over keeping most of the dialogue in Mandarin Chinese, against the wishes of the studio for the movie to be in English or to be a broad comedy. Tonally, Wang keeps everything just right – it’s just the right amount of sad, the right amount of funny, and no incident or interaction is superfluous. This is how one does family drama. The device of the big secret that the family is keeping from Nai Nai adds to the dramatic tension and serves as a focal point.

Perhaps it’s an exigency of movies about big family gatherings, but naturally not everyone gets equal amounts of characterisation or screen time. The character that suffers the most from this is Aiko, who has practically no lines. As the biggest outsider, things must be the most confusing for Aiko, who has been dragged to a pseudo-wedding because her boyfriend’s grandmother is dying but nobody is going to tell her. This reviewer would like to have seen Billi and Aiko share a moment.

Awkwafina is brilliant as Billi, bringing a raw, beautiful honesty to the part while also displaying her comedic instincts when the story calls for it. Tzi Ma, who is often given thankless bit parts in Hollywood, creates a sympathetic character in Billi’s father. The film contrasts Billi’s relationship with her father and that with her mother without putting too fine a point on it. Zhao Shuzhen’s turn as Nai Nai is confident and brimming with warmth; the affection between Billi and Nai Nai is utterly, heart-achingly believable.

Part of why The Farewell feels so authentic is because Lulu Wang drew inspiration from an incident in her own life, when her own grandmother was diagnosed with cancer and her family decided to keep it a secret from her. She first told this story in an episode of the podcast This American Life, which garnered the attention of film producers. Lulu shares a lot in common with the character Billi, including moving from China to the US with her family at age 6. Much of The Farewell was filmed in Changchun, which is where Wang’s family is from. Further adding to the verisimilitude is that Lu Hong, who portrays Billi’s grandaunt “Little Nai Nai”, is Wang’s real-life grandaunt.

The Farewell is another good example of why more filmmakers from different backgrounds and with different life experiences should be given the opportunity to make movies. Writer/director Wang demonstrates a sensitivity and a sense of humour about questions of identity and of the immigrant experience, which itself covers a wide spectrum. Drawing inspiration from the specificities of her life, Wang creates something that can reach a wide audience regardless of their cultural background. The exceedingly positive critical reaction to this film is more than deserved.

Summary: The Farewell is a touching portrait of family that asks poignant questions about cultural values and identity without being either dull or histrionic. Writer-director Lulu Wang firmly establishes herself as a talent to watch, with star Awkwafina showing off impressive dramatic chops while still being appealingly funny.

RATING: 4.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

 

Christopher Robin review

CHRISTOPHER ROBIN

Director : Marc Forster
Cast : Ewan McGregor, Hayley Atwell, Bronte Carmichael, Mark Gatiss, Jim Cummings, Brad Garrett, Toby Jones, Nick Mohammed, Peter Capaldi, Sophie Okonedo, Sara Sheen
Genre : Comedy/Drama/Fantasy
Run Time : 104 mins
Opens : 2 August 2018
Rating : PG

“When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things,” so wrote the Apostle Paul in the Book of Corinthians. In this live-action/animation hybrid comedy-drama, Christopher Robin (Ewan McGregor) has put away childish things, but the time has come for him to rediscover them.

As a child, Christopher played in what he called the Hundred-Acre Wood with his stuffed animal friends, including the honey-loving Winnie the Pooh (Jim Cummings), ebullient Tigger (also Cummings), despondent donkey Eeyore (Brad Garrett), worrywart Piglet (Nick Mohammed), fastidious Rabbit (Peter Capaldi), intelligent Owl (Toby Jones), warm Kanga (Sophie Okonedo) and her joey Roo (Sara Sheen). They had tea parties and grand adventures, but Christopher has bidden them farewell.

Now an adult, Christopher is married to Evelyn (Hayley Atwell) and they have a daughter Madeline (Bronte Carmichael). Christopher is preoccupied with work at the luggage manufacturer Winslow Industries, and is treated poorly by his boss Giles Winslow (Mark Gatiss). When a crisis in the office pulls Christopher away from a weekend in the countryside with his wife and daughter, Pooh intervenes. Christopher is confused and unwilling, but eventually gets back in touch with the simple joys of his childhood, as the unexpected visit from his friends reorders his priorities.

This is an utterly devastating film that had this reviewer in tears almost from beginning to end. That is in no small part because it is emotionally manipulative, but just the premise is quite depressing: Christopher Robin has a mid-life crisis. This is not a movie meant for children, or at least primarily for children, judging by all the fidgeting kids in our screening. It’s a movie about what it’s like to lose and then regain a sense of wonderment and awe, and it’s something that’s readily relatable.

Last year, the biopic Goodbye Christopher Robin, about the toll that the success of the stories had on their author A. A. Milne and his family, especially his son Christopher Robin Milne, was released. That film was sad and poignant and might’ve ruined Winnie the Pooh for some, seeing how much pain that bear wound up costing its creator. Christopher Robin is sad and poignant in a different, perhaps more production line way.

Director Marc Forster revisits territory akin to that he covered in the 2004 film Finding Neverland, about the inspiration behind Peter Pan. Here, he works from a screenplay by Alex Ross Perry, Tom McCarthy and Allison Schroeder, with Greg Brooker and Mark Steven Johnson receiving a “story by” credit. The number of writers indicates a cluttered script, but there is a refreshing simplicity to Christopher Robin. At times, it comes off as too simple in straining to be twee and nostalgic, but it generally works.

The dreary post-WWII London setting is contrasted with the idyll of the woods in Surrey. Above and beyond the period details, the visual effects in bringing the cuddly denizens of Hundred-Acre Wood to life are key in making audiences buy into the premise. The character animation, mostly done by visual effects houses Framestore and Method, is pitch-perfect – the way each character moves, the texture of their fur, the subtle nuances in the facial expressions – Pooh and company are all brought to life so lovingly.

Ewan McGregor’s performance as Christopher is reasonably endearing, but all the human characters are quite thinly drawn. We see how much pressure Christopher is under and how he is intent on his young daughter going away to boarding school, against her wishes. Because the titular character is intended as a cipher for all adults, there’s not much that makes him distinctive, apart from how he’s friends with a bunch of sentient stuffed animals.

Hayley Atwell is underused in a sparely written role as ‘the wife’, while Bronte Carmichael does inject some personality into Madeline, but again, it’s not much more than “I don’t get to spend enough time with my dad”. The whole thing is very “cats in the cradle” – or “bears in the honey jar”, if you will. Meanwhile, Mark Gatiss relishes playing the cruel boss.

Veteran voice actor Jim Cummings, who has voiced Pooh since 1988 and Tigger since 1989, is such a joy to hear. His performance as Pooh sounds natural emanating from the fluffy three-dimensional rendering of the beloved bear. While the rest of the voice cast are not as closely associated with their respective characters as Cummings is, everyone does well – especially Brad Garrett as Eeyore, who gets some of the best lines.

Disney has been leaning extremely hard on nostalgia, and Christopher Robin puts a bit of a spin on that by commenting on the nature of adulthood and of maintaining a connection to childhood after we’ve crossed that threshold. The film doesn’t comment on this in the most insightful manner, but there are moments that are sweet as honey, and, if you’re as emotionally fragile as this reviewer, as sad as an empty honey jar.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Pop Aye

For F*** Magazine

POP AYE

Director : Kirsten Tan
Cast : Thaneth Warakulnukroh, Bong the elephant, Penpak Sirikul, Chaiwat Khumdee, Yukontorn Sukkijja, Narong Pongpab
Genre : Comedy/Drama
Run Time : 1h 42min
Opens : 13 April 2017
Rating : M18 (Sexual Scenes)

Some men buy sports cars when they hit a mid-life crisis. In this comedy-drama, Thana (Warakulnukroh) buys an elephant. Thana is an architect whose magnum opus, the mixed-use complex Gardenia Square, is about to be demolished. He is made to feel less-than-relevant at the firm which he co-founded, and his relationship with his wife Bo (Sirikul) has hit a rough patch. One day, he spots an elephant being paraded through the streets, its owner charging tourists for photos with the pachyderm. Thana recognises the elephant as Popeye (Bong), his childhood companion when he was growing up on a farm. Thana buys Popeye and plans an epic odyssey to take Popeye back to the province of Loei where they both hail from. Along the way, Thana encounters colourful characters including the dishevelled Dee (Khumdee), who lives out of an abandoned filling station, and Jenni (Sukkijja), a transgender woman who works at a seedy roadside dive bar.

Pop Aye is the directorial debut of Kirsten Tan, who became the first Singaporean filmmaker to win an award at Sundance. In addition to taking home the Special Jury Award Screenwriting at the prestigious indie festival, Pop Aye also bagged the VPRO Big Screen Award at the Rotterdam Film Festival. Anthony Chen of Ilo Ilo fame is an executive producer, with his label Giraffe Pictures being one of the production houses involved in bringing the film to fruition.

Pop Aye is unlike any Singaporean film before it, and the audacity of the production is highly commendable: the dialogue is entirely in Thai, which is neither Tan’s first nor second language; it’s shot on location in a mix of rural and urban areas in Thailand; and of course, there’s the formidable logistical challenge of placing an elephant in roughly 90% of all the shots. Speaking before our screening, Tan joked that she thought that having an elephant as a main character would be charming, and by the time she realised what the actual production would entail, it was too late to back out.

There are many films about middle-aged men dealing with a personal or professional rut in ways that are eccentric, self-destructive, or a little of both. When Thana finds his life making less and less sense, he gravitates towards something that reminds him of his formative years, a simpler life far from the city. One of the themes that drives Pop Aye is the quest to regain innocence lost. Tan juxtaposes the sweetness inherent in the ‘a boy and his X’ genre (think E.T., The Iron Giant or How to Train Your Dragon) with adult elements like sex and death. The fact that Thana’s own boyhood ended decades ago lends the film a gentle sadness. In some scenes, cinematographer Chananun Chotrungroj presents the elephant with a sense of reverence, almost as if Popeye is Thana’s spirit guide. In other scenes, Popeye is picking pieces of watermelon off the floor or guzzling beer from a mug, and is presented as a more traditional cute animal sidekick.

Warakulnukroh, who is known mainly as a singer in Thailand, hasn’t acted in over 30 years. One would be hard-pressed to tell. He imbues Thana with everyman relatability, rendering the character eminently sympathetic. Thana is prone to acts of kindness, and his interaction with Dee is especially striking. Where others would be afraid or at least wary of the homeless man, Thana is friendly towards him, is keen to hear his story, and buys Dee food. At the same time, Thana is flawed and makes several questionable decisions. Because the character is as fleshed out as he is, we’re willing to go along with his journey, even when things get a little slow.

Like many other road movies, Pop Aye is episodic in structure. Therefore, it is a little challenging to form an emotional connection with the film. In the abovementioned ‘a boy and his X’ films, there’s always at least one moment of interaction between the boy and the ‘X’ that is indelible. We have Toothless and Hiccup’s first meeting, Hogarth telling the Iron Giant “you don’t have to be a gun. You are what you choose to be”, or Elliott bidding E.T. farewell, scenes which stay with the viewer for their emotional resonance. Pop Aye has scenes which approach this, but falls short of delivering a truly impactful moment, one that will bring a tear to the eye of even the burliest, toughest audience member. There is a brief flashback to Thana’s childhood – Popeye the Sailor-man happens to be playing on TV, giving young Thana the inspiration to name the elephant. Perhaps we could have spent a little longer with Thana and Popeye in their respective youths.

While Thana shows kindness to Jenni and we get the impression that she’s led a difficult life, Jenni serves primarily as a comic relief character. Pop Aye does not mock her outright, but the character does invoke how the transgender community in Thailand is misunderstood and ridiculed.

Pop Aye is offbeat, charming and warm, a film which was clearly a mammoth task to put together. It might not possess the sublime emotional purity of other films about the bond between man and beast, but to call Kirsten Tan’s debut “promising” is an understatement.

Summary: Pack your trunk and join Thana and Popeye on the road: it’s bumpy at times, but it’s largely a worthwhile journey.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong