Kirsten Tan’s feature debut Pop Aye begins with a hitchhiker in Thailand trying to catch a ride. Trudging along the side of the road, the man holds out his hand once, with no luck. He tries again and a truck slows. The driver seems unfazed as he loads the man’s cargo: a sweetly cooperative elephant. The hitchhiker is Thana, an esteemed architect who became so frustrated with his life that he trashed it.
Feeling disrespected at his job and reviled by his wife at home, he sees an elephant he recognizes from his childhood and offers to buy him on the spot. Even on film, the presence of a creature like that is enough to briefly take your breath away—and coupled with old memories, it’s enough for Thana to set out on a slow, sweet, strange cross-country journey to his hometown with the beast.
Bathing together in a river, Thana turns to Pop Aye the elephant and says: “You’re just like me—old, fat, and homeless.” Pop Aye shares a number of themes with Musa Syeed’s 2016 feature A Stray, about a Muslim refugee in Minneapolis who becomes involuntarily saddled with a stray dog. In both films, the main characters are missing key elements of life (employment, housing, relationships) and are almost ready to give up entirely. The animals help the main characters realize that the trappings of humanity—while key for health and survival—are not the definition of existence.
Elephants and dogs can remind us that without a job or a home, you can keep living. Character and personality exist outside of the narrow ways we categorize ourselves as people. You are still a person, you still belong on this earth, and you’re here for the same reason that they are: no reason at all.