A sense of flux has underpinned Kirsten Tan’s life, with the career of the Singapore-born filmmaker reflecting this. Her first short films, Fonzi and 10 Minutes Later, both released in 2006, were filmed and set in Singapore—a trend that did not continue, however. Her 2007 short Come centred around sex and religion in South Korea. Another short, Sink (2009) was shot in Thailand. Then, Tan moved to New York City. Inevitably, a sense of adventure, displacement, and pace bled into Tan’s approach to cinema. Cold Noodles (2010) followed a man locked out of his house in New York, while Thin Air (2011) painted a portrait of a man locked in it: living the final days of his life in a wheelchair on his city rooftop. For 2014’s Dahdi, Tan returned to Singapore, with a short inspired by the 2012 arrival of 40 Burmese Rohingya asylum seekers to a port in Singapore.
Now, in 2017, she’s released her debut feature with Pop Aye, which premiered at Sundance and took home the award for Best Screenplay. It’s a work that reflects the last decade of Tan’s career as a filmmaker, as a piece focused on capturing the movement that has defined it. A familiar structure—the ‘road movie’—sits at the core of the film, although Tan employs it as a vehicle to make pointed social criticisms. We caught up with Kirsten Tan at Sydney Film Festival to talk about Pop Aye, the filming process, and her career as a filmmaker refusing to remain stagnant.
What was the main initial inspiration behind the work?
I lived in Thailand for two years. So a lot of the inspiration came from my observation of Thai life and the experiences I went through while I was there, even including characters I met. For example, Dee, the vagabond, he was based on a real guy I met. A lot of this actually was inspired by the location itself. I think that’s why it’s a road movie, I’ve always been a bit of a restless soul. I was born in Singapore, but I’ve lived in Thailand. I’ve lived in Korea. Now, I’m based in New York. So this idea of being on the road, being on the move, I guess it’s something almost inherent to myself. So I’m really not surprised that a road film is the first feature film I would make.
I think actually for me the most enjoyable bits of the screenplay was once he got on the road. Once he got on the road it was super fun for me to write, because it was just very much about me following my subconscious, following my imagination and somehow it was really the most fun for me to write, because the road somehow allows or perhaps even calls for unpredictable encounters. I felt like I could just almost do anything you want and almost the more unexpected the better. But at the same time, I felt like it was necessary for every angle to feel unexpected but inevitable. As for the elephant, he was actually the first elephant I met even though subsequently I think I met up close to a hundred elephants.
Was that always a relatively central idea to the work, that you wanted to have the elephant as the main companion?
Yes. On this… the elephant came first. The elephant came before the character of Thana. I felt like from the first draft I kind of knew what the elephant character was, but with Thana I had to find his character. I would say the elephant is extremely central to the idea, to the genesis of the idea of the film. Somehow, once there was this elephant then a lot of things fell into place. Tonally I feel it would come off as being something slightly surreal, maybe something even slightly absurd. The elephant was very much central to the style of the tone and everything in it. Especially because elephants, both in Thailand and in the wider world, also kind of symbolise hopelessness. So much of the forest in Thailand has been cut down. Even across the world, even in Africa. So then a lot of times these elephants have become forced to live among men. So then this idea of finding a home and that home still exists also came about when I was thinking about elephants.
The film is shot in this rural, industrial countryside of Thailand, and I think that contributes a lot to the desolation of both Thana and the elephant; they’re both so isolated throughout the film. Did anything in particular draw you to shooting in those areas?
I think for me it was fun writing about them being on the road and the surreal places they would encounter, but at the same time I was also very, very careful about not romanticising the country. I definitely did not want to exoticise it or to give it a kind of pastoral idealism because to me in some ways the country, the city, they are all slaves to development as well.
That’s what I wanted to be clear about. No matter if you’re from the country or from the city, everyone is a slave to this relentless development that’s happening in South Asia. So writing these sections in the countryside, I was very careful to not over-exoticise it.
It definitely comes through in the detail when you’re trying to portray these areas or characters with that sort of explicit nuance, even in the formal boundaries of a road movie.
Yeah, because I feel like people should be wary of nostalgia sometimes. Like it plays the part of some kind of pedestal, but for me it’s like once the past is past sometimes it’s gone, and the impression of the past could really just be a fabrication of your own imagination rather than something that exists.
The friendships throughout the film have these same intricacies to them, where they felt very intentional, that they all were very meaningful in their placement in the film.
What inspired those characters? What did you feel like you were able to convey by including them?
I guess in a way Thana is a central character. If you look at his life he’s in the midst of trying to understand a lot of things that are happening to him now. He’s becoming irrelevant at work, he’s becoming irrelevant at home. He’s come to a stage in life where he is feeling like he’s not so significant. In some ways, he has to come to terms with the fact that he is no longer in his prime, so to speak. Then I feel like the different characters I kind of planted in there, I feel like they were all there because they were speaking to his insecurity, and it was important for him to have these encounters, so that by the end of the film he would understand or maybe accept his life better.
For example, the vagabond character, the character of Dee, here is a homeless guy who’s about to die, but at the same time he seems so completely at peace with his upcoming fate. Then I thought it was interesting for Thana to meet a guy like that. Thana, who is someone who’s still trying to struggle to hold on to what he was and then to meet this guy who is so OK with what is to come, whether it’s good or bad. Then I felt like it was important for him to meet this guy. Also, I guess the character of the transvestite, she’s very much an outsider and outcast, but yet at the same time it feels like she doesn’t care that people sometimes laugh at her, make fun of her. She does what she wants. I felt like it was important for Thana to have encountered someone like that so that from observing her, from his brief encounters with her he can kind of grow and learn as well.
The way that they interact on screen, the intimacy they develop, it almost operates with a serious sort of undertone, I felt.
Yeah. I think it was important also that these encounters feel deep, but at the same time they should also feel light, because I don’t ever want the film to come off as being preachy. So I think the great thing about the road movie is that it keeps you going, so then it feels like nothing horrible lasts forever but nothing great lasts forever as well. Somehow this lightness makes heavy things feel a touch more poignant to me as well. Like no matter what you do and how much you hate your life, or how much you don’t hate your life, when you’re on the road it goes by and it goes by quickly.
That’s a really poignant way to put it, I feel like it’s a film that is able to dodge feeling preachy or didactic.
Yes. I was trying really hard to avoid that.
At the same time, I think the more subtle way of interaction, the earnest engagement, is more effective in itself. I think it comes together really well.
I noticed was you worked with Lee Chatametikool to edit the film?
Yes, Lee Chatametikool. He cut for Apichatpong.
Yeah. He also cut another film at the festival, Anocha Suwichakornpong’s Dao Khanong.
Yes. By the Time It Gets Dark.
What was the process of working with him like, as both an editor that’s worked with very established directors in Thailand, while seeming equally invested in up-and-coming filmmakers in the region?
Right. For me, I loved working with Lee. I think he is extremely gifted as an editor and so very, very versatile. Usually I think people associate him with more experimental films, but yet I feel like mine is more an independent narrative film. Yet he brought so much into it as well. I think the best part about working with him was that I felt like his mind is completely free. He’s not afraid to take the scene and just jumble it everywhere. For him it’s really just very much about putting the scene together and making sure it works. He’s just so totally free with structure, with chronology. Watching him edit, I’m not even sure if he knows what he’s doing. I feel like his approach is extremely instinctive. Like he would go away and then come back and then cut something.
What I really like about him is that I feel like his brain doesn’t work linearly. His brain just functions in this lateral kind of way. I think that is the thing that frees him from a certain set formula of how one should edit. It was really inspiring working with him.
I think having someone in that editing role approaching it from such a distinct angle would definitely bring a lot to the process.
Yeah. What I really appreciated about him is that he’s super experienced and I’m a first-time filmmaker, but he would also really take my input as a director and would listen to what I have to say. It was never about him, it was always about the film. So that I really appreciate as well.
That’s a good way to lead into what I wanted to ask about. As a first-time director born in Singapore, who shot this film in Thailand, and is now based in New York, do you consider whether you’ll work in Thailand again, or if you’re feeling more like your filmmaking career might mirror the vagabond nature of the film?
For me, it’s never really truly about the country or about the place. I’m a lot more driven by ideas and stories. I would go where the idea goes. In some ways I feel like my road is really open. I’m not stuck to anywhere or to any place. I mean, I would totally be happy to go back to Thailand one day, and I would be happy to make one in Singapore, or one in a state that doesn’t really matter to me. I guess it’s also important for me that each place come off authentically at the same time. So then there’s always a mixture of what I imagine a place to be and what reality is. I think that that friction is the thing that makes a film. I guess this friction between the author’s intention and what is actually out there.
Are you at a stage at all where you’re thinking about working on anything new, or is that too far in the future for now?
I’ve actually done quite a few things already. I did a short film, a Chinese opera-inspired short film. Right now I’m working on another short film, but in terms of longform I feel like I need to take a slight break. As I travel the film festival circuit, I feel like I need to recharge. Hopefully, by the end of the year I’ll find some time to start writing down some ideas I have brewing in my head.
As a filmmaker, I know that a lot of the time there can be narratives developed around films by reviews over time, and I was curious whether when you made this film there was something in particular you wanted people to take from it?
I think for me having an elephant as a main character, I feel like I was afraid that somehow having him there would overpower everything, and that was something I was really trying to avoid. I was avoiding this being a cute, sentimental elephant film.
Rather, I really wanted people to focus more on the existential themes within the film. For me, in the making of it I was very much trying to balance out all these elements. I was trying to keep the elephant’s behaviour as real and as authentic as possible. I was trying to avoid a cute elephant interpretation while I was directing it. Then the relation between him and the main character was also very important, so I had to build a chemistry between them before filming. Ultimately, I wanted people to watch this film and to feel the passage of time moving, because for me that’s what the film is about. It’s about time. It’s about accepting that things that are gone are gone. To look at what we have at the moment, in the present and to sometimes appreciate that more than “beautiful past”.
I think that comes out brilliantly throughout the film.