ASEAN Film Festival winner Kirsten Tan: “Never take the unchanging province for granted”

[Contains spoilers]

A weary man approaches the camera, his purple umbrella barely reaching the eyes of the elephant beside him. There is no rain for the umbrella, but it shields him from the harsh sun as he travels from the country’s urban center to a rural border province in Isaan. The journey is demanding, not just physically but emotionally in a trip down memory lane.

Pop Aye, the debut feature by Kirsten Tan, a Singaporean filmmaker based in New York, follows a Bangkok architect’s journey to his hometown in Loei Province. The protagonist, Thana, explores his past amidst a midlife crisis alongside his childhood companion, the film’s titular elephant.

Tan was raised in Singapore and lived in South Korea and Thailand before moving to New York. She completed a Master’s in Film Production at New York University. Her work has been showcased in over 40 international film festivals, including Sundance Film Festival 2017, where Pop Aye won the Special Jury Prize in Screenwriting.

In May, Pop Aye went on to win the Grand Jury Prize at ASEAN Film Festival 2017 in Bangkok, where the film premiered in Thailand.

The Isaan Record talks to Tan about Pop Aye’s portrayal of the urban-rural divide in Thailand and the nostalgia Thana and Pop Aye’s travels evoke.

IR: Who did you make Pop Aye for, first and foremost?

When I made the film, I set out to make a generous film that would be appreciated by a thinking audience. Naively, I didn’t think of any nationalities or demographics. I focused on the film itself and wanted it to be its best possible version.

IR: How was the reception of the film at the ASEAN Film Festival in Bangkok?

I felt the warmth of the audience at the ASEAN Film Festival. Since it was the Thai premiere, it was a very nice experience for me to be there. It was also the first time I saw most of the crew in a year. It was a lovely reunion for everyone.

IR: How did you get the details for the Northeast so right? For example the farmer’s truck with the name “Chaiyaphum Phuet-phon” on it, or the nostalgic “elephant ear” snack that Thana picked in Tesco Lotus.

Apart from myself, the creative crew (cinematographer, editor, production designer) is all Thai. I relied heavily on my crew to create a realistic version of Thailand. A lot of these details you mentioned were suggested to me by them, especially my production designer, Rasiguet Sookharn. I loved how he included all these elements in a subtle way that added another layer of authenticity to someone who may notice them.

A year before making ‘Pop Aye,’ Tan came to Thailand to research elephants. A year later, after casting one hundred elephants, she chose Bong, the first elephant she met the year before, for a lead role in her film.

IR: One viewer commented that the movie was very “Bangkok versus the Provinces.” Is that opposition based on your experience in Thailand?

There were themes of the urban vs. the rural that I was trying to point out with the film. When I was living in Thailand and travelling through the country, the divide was very distinct. Space, rhythm, and culture obviously feel so different once you travel deeper into Thailand.

Yet, I was also trying to subvert the idea that the city is always chaotic and fast and that the country is always idyllic and pleasant. What I suggested in the film is to never take the unchanging province for granted. One day, it may hit relentless development as well. At the end of it, things change, and we are all slaves to time and to an extent, commerce. It could be a cynical view but one that I thought was important to point out.

IR: What is your view on elephant reserves? By the end of the movie, Thana, the protagonist, says he would give Pop Aye to a nature reserve. Earlier, there is a shot of a young elephant lying on her side as if she were dead. These things seem to point towards a conservationist impulse. Yet, we never know of Pop Aye’s fate. My takeaway was that the elephant doesn’t really matter.

For me, what mattered in the end is the elephant’s agency and choice to leave and not return to Thana or man-made civilization. I wouldn’t say that he is unimportant. He’s very important to me as he’s the only character that managed to escape his original circumstances. Everyone else kind of stayed put. Perhaps Thana understood a little more about life, but he still had to return home to deal with his wife.

IR: How do you see your role as a cosmopolitan filmmaker in the urbanizing process of the rural Third World? Do you think Pop Aye addresses the urban-rural divide through Thana, who left the provinces in order to make it in the metropolis, only to look back for selfish nostalgia?

I wouldn’t necessarily consider Thana’s nostalgia selfish. Even if it is selfish, it is an inevitable selfishness where you idealize and look back towards something you once held dear when you are facing an impending loss in your current life.

It’s almost like human nature’s self-preservation kicks in to want to go back to a safe, warm place when life becomes threatening. Perhaps it is naive and self-centred for him to think things will remain the same for him, but when I write, I try not to judge the actions of my characters.

I think I wrote his story as a kind of cautionary tale for myself. In my pursuit of filmmaking in NYC, I should not forget my home, my childhood, and things that are dear to me in Singapore since they could very well disappear before I realize.

IR: What is your next project? What have you learned from making Pop Aye that has left a mark on your vision as a filmmaker?

I will continue traveling the festival circuit till the end of the year. I haven’t had a chance to really write a next project yet. Pop Aye was such a difficult film to make in so many ways.

One of the most pleasurable things for me after I made the film was feeling that I have improved in my craft as a filmmaker. As to the exact thing I have improved on, I feel like I don’t have enough distance yet to figure out what that is. I’ll update you when enough time passes by!