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Interview with filmmaker Kirsten Tan: "What I love about a good road movie is that it's always existential"

Sundance special

Interview with filmmaker Kirsten Tan: "What I love about a good road movie is that it's always existential"
What does it take to debut a Sundance award-winning feature film? We chat with Singaporean filmmaker Kirsten Tan on Pop Aye, a story about a man’s road trip with his elephant

"Part of my soul will be permanently etched onscreen," wrote Kirsten Tan just three days before her debut feature film, Pop Aye, premiered at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival in Utah. "There is no hiding now. I feel like I am on the edge of a cliff."

As far as death-defying, adrenaline-heavy stunts go, cliff-jumping makes it to the top of the list — but it's a position the 35-year-old filmmaker was rewarded handsomely with. On the first day of Chinese New Year and the closing night ceremony at Sundance, Tan received a call in Brooklyn (where she's been based at for the past eight years) from the festival's director of programming to inform her of the win. A victory dance and a public Facebook post later, this little red dot celebrated the film's World Cinema Dramatic Special Jury award — a first for Singapore.

I caught hold of the New York University graduate via email just before she boarded a plane to Rotterdam, where Pop Aye had its European premiere. It wasn't the first time the film is landing on European soil, though. Her script was first selected for the script station at Berlinale Talents in Berlin, with the project taking the top prize at TorinoFilmLab in Rotterdam and showcased at Cannes Atelier. After three years of research, writing, financing and producing, Pop Aye was selected as the opening movie for Sundance's World Cinema Dramatic Competition section.

Written and directed by Tan and produced by a team led by fellow local filmmaker Anthony Chen, Pop Aye is certainly prolonging Singapore's presence in the international film circuit after 2016's two Cannes Film Festival appearances: Boo Junfeng's Apprentice and K Rajagopal's A Yellow Bird. While both films delved on touchy social subjects within Singapore (the death penalty and homelessness respectively), Tan's story is set in Thailand. While in Bangkok, architect Thana (played by veteran actor Thaneth Warakulnukroh) runs into Popeye, his childhood elephant who prompts him to leave the city and go on a road trip in search of the farm where they grew up together.

While not Singaporean in territory, the film's essence lies in its documentation of humanity. "As a filmmaker (and even as a person), I've always favoured what it means to be human first and foremost," replied Tan when I approached the subject of a Singaporean making a film in Thailand. In a time when political figures and critics lazily rely on labels — be it gender, sexual orientation, race, religion or nationality — it helps when cinema trims the fat and shows that we're only human after all. With or without the help of elephants. 

Why did you set your first feature film in Thailand?
About a decade ago in my early '20s, I lived in Thailand for two years. I had a rock band there, co-owned a t-shirt store at Chatuchak and travelled extensively throughout Thailand. So it's not too surprising that I would set my first feature film there. To be honest, I didn't think too hard on why I wanted the film set in Thailand. The idea came to me organically in my head and I quickly committed it to script. The rest of it was just executing it in the best way possible.

Being Singaporean, how important was it to you to capture another country truthfully without making caricatures and stereotypes?
It's important for me to capture the essence of Thailand truthfully. Personally, it was crucial to get certain cultural specificities of Thailand correct on film. We consulted a lot with the Thais and did a lot of ground research by going to the actual towns before filming to see and understand the way of life. It helped also that I trusted my Thai crew members to pinpoint factual inaccuracies and they were happy to do so because they too wanted to make an authentic film.

Why a road film?
I love road films because of course, they are never just about the literal road, but a manifestation of life's journey. Each step forward represents an inevitable passing of time. We live our lives moving forward even when we are doing nothing. Time and its passage thereof has always been a big theme for me. It is a dimension that never stops happening to us at every moment. Its effects add up, but we can't possibly be aware of how they will all add up, in life as we live it. The road-movie lends itself well to cinematic explorations of this journey. We get to see how the beats add up. In Pop Aye, the way various moments add up in the plot — both in the road trip and in the arc of my main character, Thana's life — are testament to the quiet brutality of time.

Do you have any road films that you're a fan of? What were your takeaways from those films?
As part of my research for Pop Aye, I have watched almost every single road movie in existence. I particularly enjoyed Vagabond by Agnès Varda, Paris Texas by Wim Wenders and La Strada by Federico Fellini. What I love about a good road movie is that it's always existential. They are stories of lost souls who hit the road in search for meaning whilst mending a listless and empty heart. That's a state of feeling I can identify with.

"I felt like time stood still and I was staring into something ancient, benevolent and kind"
— Kirsten Tan on Bong the elephant
Seeing that the film's in Thai, what was the writing process like and how did you ensure that colloquial expressions or words were used aptly?
I wrote the movie in English, and with the help of a Thai screenwriter, Oui Ratchapoom, translated the screenplay to Thai language. Post-translation, I also had the help of Prabda Yoon (one of Thailand's most loved novelist and filmmaker), Chananun Chotrungroj (my cinematographer) and Navarutt Roongaroon (my script-supervisor) to go through the translated version and make amendments. It was important that they further vetted the script because beyond language, they've read the English version, know me well as a person and understand my style and intention. They are extra eyes to make sure that the screenplay works at a deeper and sub-textual level too. We filmed a huge bulk of the screenplay in Northeast Thailand as well and had the help of locals to make sure that we had the Isaan dialect correct. 

Was it an evolving script, and were there any adlib moments?
The script was evolving all the way till the final moments of shooting because the actors came on with their own thoughts as well. As long as they kept to my intention of the scenes, I'm good with them improvising lines and dialogues that felt comfortable to their tongue.

How did you connect with the main character, Thana?
It's never been challenging for me to inhabit characters. I suppose I do that with a mixture of imagination and empathy. For Thana's character, I connected with him because I suspect I'm a bit of an old soul inside.

Thaneth Warakulnukroh
What did you see in Thaneth Warakulnukroh that made him perfect for the role of Thana?
When I met him for the role, he had become a stay-home dad and appeared very mild in comparison to old images you find of him on the Internet. In the '80s, he used to be one of Thailand's most famous and revered rock stars. Then he suddenly and completely dropped out of the scene. Looking at him, he felt like someone who's experienced the highs and lows, and the triumphs and tragedies of life. I thought he would understand the character well and he did.

How did you go about casting the elephant, Bong?
Before I made Pop Aye, I went to Thailand a year earlier to research about elephants. Bong was the very first elephant I met on my research trip. I still remember clearly the first moment I met Bong. I walked out of the hut at first light and saw Bong standing in the field. I walked up close to him and still recall clearly the way he looked at me. [I'm] not being dramatic but at that moment, I felt like time stood still and I was staring into something ancient, benevolent and kind. In his eyes, there's an openness and generosity of spirit I cannot begin to describe.

I was stunned on my first meeting but brushed Bong aside initially because I thought he was way too majestic and good-looking for the role. When I returned to Thailand to cast a year later, I visited most of the elephant camps in Surin, Ayuthaya and Chiangmai and saw close to a hundred elephants but none of them moved me in the way that Bong did.

Bong the elephant

What are some of the things you learned about yourself through the making of this film?
It was a really difficult period and I felt totally spent making the film. This will sound funny but it was also the period where, for the first time, I truly understood Albert Camus' line 'In the depth of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer.' I'm not sure if that 'invincible summer' is tenacity, stubbornness or pure muscle memory but something in me kept me going and helped me to finish the film. Discovering this inner-reserve within myself is a wonderful feeling. Prior to the making of this film, I never had to tap into that.

Like Pop Aye's Facebook page to get updates on screenings. For more profile interviews, click here.

Adibah Isa

  • Image: Getty Images, Facebook | Pop Aye

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