Big Screen Berkeley: ‘Pop Aye’ and ‘City of Ghosts’

‘Pop Aye’

A man and an elephant walk down a road, thumbing a ride. No, it’s not the set-up for a joke, it’s the opening scene of Pop Aye, a leisurely shaggy dog tale from Thailand opening at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas on Friday, July 14th.

Written and directed by Singapore-born Kirsten Tan, Pop Aye tells the story of Thanna (Thaneth Warakulnukroh), a Bangkok architect in the midst of a mid-life crisis. On the verge of being squeezed out of his firm by younger blood, Thanna is also in mourning for his signature design, a thirty-year-old apartment block that’s slated for demolition.

Coupled with his unhappy marriage to Bo (Penpak Sirikul), Thanna’s professional troubles mean there’s little keeping him in Bangkok, and after espying an old friend from his home village he decides to embark upon a nostalgic road trip. The wrinkle: the old friend is actually a performing pachyderm named Popeye (the film’s title, I imagine, has been amended slightly to circumvent potential lawsuits from the cartoon sailor’s current owner, Hearst Communications) with whom Thanna shared his idyllic childhood.

Pop Aye follows Thanna and Popeye as they travel the Thai countryside, encountering along the way a series of eccentric characters, including a long-haired mystic with a morbid streak, a transvestite, and a pair of hapless police officers, who arrest him for carrying a counterfeit elephant license. Their adventures are accompanied by Matthew James Kelly’s thoroughly enjoyable score, which blends elements of traditional Thai music with western influences such as Santo & Johnny and Hank Marvin.


Clocking in at 104 minutes, the film is ultimately a bit on the long side. Plodding along at a steady but appropriately elephantine pace before reaching its somewhat unsatisfying conclusion, Pop Aye nevertheless has its moments, and it must be said that Bong – the animal actor portraying the titular character – is truly excellent. If you’re a fan of tuskers, you’ll want to check it out.

‘City of Ghosts’

Opening the same day at the same theater, City of Ghosts is the latest documentary from Matthew Heineman, whose previous effort Cartel Land drew a mostly positive review from yours truly a couple of years ago. This time, Heineman has trained his camera on another of the world’s danger spots – Raqqa, Syria.

The capital of Daesh’s caliphate since the fundamentalist army seized it in 2014 (and now their last remaining stronghold), Raqqa was the first city to suffer the lash of the so-called ‘Islamic State’. City of Ghosts focuses on the efforts of a group of citizen reporters known collectively as Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently to alert the world to the suffering and murder taking place in their home town.

Heineman spends a comparatively brief amount of time on these crimes, instead concentrating on the personal stories of the members of RBSS. As distressing as they are, however, they almost serve as a distraction from the bigger picture.

Instead of seeing footage from Raqqa itself, we get lots of footage of anguished men listening to cell phones and looking at laptops. It’s not a recipe for cinematic engagement, and City of Ghosts ends up being a bit of a let-down.