• Thaneth Warakulnukroh plays as an architect undergoing a mid-life crisis, who unexpectedly encounters Pop Aye (Pong), an elephant he owned as a child.
  • Bero Beyer, general and artistic director of International Film Festival Rotterdam poses with filmmaker Kirsten Tan.

An elephant-sized win

movie & TV February 07, 2017 01:00


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An independent Indian film and a Singapore - Thailand production steal the limelight at the International Film Festival Rotterdam

One of the biggest film festivals in the world, the 46th International Film Festival Rotterdam ended on Saturday night with the awarding of the prestigious Hivos Tiger Award to Sanal Kumar Sasidharan’s Malayalam-language indie film “Sexy Durga”.

Another big winner was the Singapore-Thailand co-production “Pop Aye”. Produced by Anthony Chen, director of the award winning film “Ilo Ilo”, it’s directed by Kirsten Tan, a Singaporean filmmaker who made her name with short films “Sink” (2009) and “Cold Noodles” (2010). “Pop Aye” took home the World Cinema Dramatic Special Jury Award for Screenwriting at the Sundance Film Festival, where it premiered last month. In Rotterdam, the film won the VPRO Big Screen Award, which is chosen by five film enthusiasts. Tan takes home a cash prize of 15,000 Euros Bt560,000) and financial support towards its theatrical release in the Netherlands.

“Ten years ago, I spent two years in Thailand. Now I live in New York,” Tan tells XP, adding that she had long wanted to become a filmmaker in a country where there is a small film industry.

“I was born and raised in Singapore. I knew I always wanted to make films, but I couldn’t see a space for myself in the Singapore film industry. I couldn’t see how someone like myself, young and female, could have any future in cinema in Singapore.”

Tan spent time in South Korea on an artist-in-residence programme before coming to Thailand and making a short film. “I was living with a friend at the home and writing scripts and filming shorts. I then moved to New York where I was lucky enough to get a scholarship to New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts for my master’s degree.

“That provided me with the opportunity to make my first feature film, which was entirely shot in Thailand and has only Thai characters.

“I know it’s very strange”, Tan laughs when asked why a Singaporean filmmaker would choose to make her full-lengthen debut with a Thai film.

“When I mentioned my idea for the film, several Singaporean filmmakers asked me why I didn’t want to make a film in Singapore and I couldn’t give them an answer. It just felt right. I didn’t think too much about why I wanted to make it in Thailand,” says Tan, who admits she has transformed many of her memories living in Bangkok to the film.

“I was filming my short ‘Sink’ at the beach in Thailand when I noticed a boy feeding an elephant. Somehow the image stayed with me, probably because they seemed totally happy. I decided to turn that memory into a story.”

“Pop Aye” tells the story of Thana (Thaneth Warakulnukroh), an architect undergoing a mid-life crisis, who unexpectedly encounters Pop Aye (Pong), an elephant he owned as a child. Thana decides to travel to his home province of Loei in Thailand’s far northeast, taking Pop Aye back to where he was raised.

“When I went to do research in Surin, Pong was the first elephant I met,” Tan says of the larger-than-life movie star. “At first I didn’t want him because he is too big and too good looking. Pong is a temple elephant so he’s familiar with voice commands, but we had to train him more to use him in the film.

Pong isn’t the film’s only rookie. Musician Thaneth Warakulnukroh is also making his big screen debut and only his second experience of working in front of the camera since the 1986 TV Series “Thewada Tok Sawan”.

“It was really hard to find an actor who suited the role. Our casting director tried to find one, but no one fitted the character, until one day, Prabda Yoon suggested Thaneth and he was perfect. He’s serious about his craft and committed to the role, which I really like about him,” Tan says.

Thaneth stars opposite popular actress Penpak Sirikul, who plays his wife. “Just by looking at Penpak’s photograph, I knew she would fit the character. I have watched many of her more recent films and she’s a really good actress. She’s was the easiest to cast.”

Tan was delighted to receive the award from the audience jury. “I’m so happy, not least because it was unexpected,” she says.

“Pop Aye” will soon be released in America and Singapore. The search is now on for a Thai distributor and Tan is hoping that it will screen this year.