The hometown-bound peregrinations through Thailand of a city man and his elephant make for a tender and sharply etched journey in Pop Aye. Loneliness, alienation, the ache of nostalgia and the everyday absurdity of life infuse every encounter in the unconventional road trip. Like the journey it depicts, the first feature by New York-based, Singapore-raised writer-director Kirsten Tan is unhurried and unforgettable. It’s a natural for further festival exposure and art house bookings. 

Of the three elephants listed in the credits of Pop Aye, two have bit parts, but Bong, the lumbering pachyderm who plays Popeye, gets top billing beside the two human leads. His chief scene partner is Thaneth Warakulnukroh, who brings a perfect combination of melancholy, frustration and frayed vitality to the role of Thana, a once-celebrated Bangkok architect. 

One of Thana’s signature buildings is being torn down to make way for the new, a highly publicized emblem of how he’s being sidelined at the office by younger colleagues. He and his wife, Bo (Penpak Sirikul), barely coexist, her chief interest being shopping. It’s no wonder that he’s given to warning younger people about the soul-sucking perils of the city, or that when he recognizes a street elephant as an animal he knew in his childhood, he genuinely smiles for the first time in ages. 

Thana seizes on the chance meeting with Popeye as a sign, buying the elephant from his mahout on the spot and embarking on a mission to return the animal to rural Loei, about 300 miles northeast of the bustle of Bangkok. There, as a child decades earlier, he first met the orphaned calf and named him after a favorite cartoon character. 

Tan and editor Lee Chatametikool fluidly interweave the central pair’s northward progress with flashbacks to Thana’s disillusioned recent life and a humble but idyllic childhood. Throughout, the thoughtful framing of Chananun Chotrungroj’s camerawork is at one with the writer-director’s sensibility, lending a subtly surreal touch to images of the skyward city, the misty countryside and the unlikely traveling partners. The hitchhiking duo barely raise an eyebrow until a couple of cops fine Thana for “violating urban tidiness.” With the police car inching behind him and Popeye, the situation grows increasingly ridiculous and is finally resolved by the resourcefulness of a stranger, one of several expressions of kindness that shape the episodic trek. 

A key encounter involves Dee, a beatific pauper who’s memorably played, with heart-stopping humility, by Chaiwat Khumdee. Living in an abandoned gas station, the longhaired man is happily resigned to the fate that he has read for himself in the stars. But it gradually emerges, after he and Thana part ways, that some of Dee’s dearest memories are not quite in sync with reality. The same turns out to be true for Thana, who holds tight to an idealized notion of the village that’s his destination, and where his uncle (Narong Pongpab) has more than a few surprises in store. 

Laced with piercing humor, Tan’s dialogue has a natural sting to match its openheartedness, echoed in the plangent exuberance of Matthew James Kelly’s score, which sometimes recalls the jangle and twang of Morricone. Every character and relationship is imbued with a fascinating complexity. Even Thana’s wife, who might have been dismissed as merely materialistic, becomes less easily summed up as the story proceeds. 

Tan ultimately is concerned with what’s unknowable and mysterious in all of us. She offers vivid moments of connection, among them Thana’s karaoke duet with Jenny, a transgender woman, at a down-and-dirty roadside bar. Through brief exchanges of dialogue and the excellent performance of Yukontorn Sukkijja, Jenny is as fully dimensional as she is enigmatic and intriguing. 

Most mysterious, of course, is Popeye himself, who just might be longing for the city that Thana has so eagerly escaped. The film contains one instance of the head-bobbing behavior that can be a sign of distress — a response that makes sense in the scene’s highway-adjacent setting. But the privately owned Asian elephant Bong, with his freckles, distinct tusks and inscrutable gaze, appears otherwise at ease and is treated with respect and good care.

Especially by Thana. He and Popeye are soul mates, adjusting as best they can to a world where they never quite fit. The full extent of Thana’s connection to the elephant, revealed late in the film, turns his expedition into one of repentance, and takes this tale of middle-aged angst to unexpected depths.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (World Cinema Dramatic Competition)
Production companies: New Influence Century Films, Giraffe Pictures, E&W Films, A Girl and a Gun, 185 Films
Cast: Thaneth Warakulnukroh, Penpak Sirikul, Bong, Yukontorn Sukkijja, Narong Pongpab

Director-screenwriter: Kirsten Tan
Producers: Lai Weijie, Deng Li, Zhang Jianbin, Huang Wenhong
Executive producer: Anthony Chen
Director of photography: Chananun Chotrungroj
Production designer: Rasiguet Sookkarn
Costume designer: Visa Kongka
Editor: Lee Chatametikool
Composer: Matthew James Kelly
Casting: Soifa Saenkhamkon, Tippawan Narintorn
Sales: Cercamon

Not rated, 102 minutes