Pop Aye, the debut feature from local film-maker Kirsten Tan, is set to premiere at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival next year. It is the first time a Singapore movie will compete at the largest indie film festival in the United States, says its production company, Giraffe Pictures.
Pop Aye follows a middle-aged architect and his elephant as they travel across Thailand in search of the farm they grew up on. It was shot entirely on location in Thailand with Thai actors and crew.
Writer-director Tan, 35, who had spent about 1- 1/2 years in Thailand around 2008, tells The Straits Times: "I once saw a group of boys pulling an elephant to sea to bathe him. The purity of that image stayed with me and is my inspiration for Pop Aye."
While in Thailand, she helped run a market stall, formed a rock band and visited film sets.
Pop Aye will make its world premiere at the World Cinema Dramatic Competition at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival, which takes place from Jan 19 to 29 in Park City, Utah.
The film is up for several awards, including the World Cinema Grand Jury Prize, World Cinema Directing Award and the Audience Prize.
Tan says she was "over the moon" when she first heard the news. "Having lived in New York for close to a decade, it feels truly special to have my first film play at such a prestigious American film festival like Sundance," says Tan, who had graduated with a master's in film production at Tisch School of the Arts, New York University, in September 2014.
Pop Aye had already been feted as early as 2014, when it won Torino Film Lab's top production prize of €60,000 (S$90,950).
Tan calls Sundance one of America's most important film festivals. "It's a festival where many diverse and amazing film-making voices are discovered and I'm curious and excited to see how my film will be received there," she says.
Sundance Film Festival is closely associated with veteran Hollywood star Robert Redford's effort to champion film-makers. Some of the acclaimed and beloved titles that have emerged from the festival over the years include Oscar winners Little Miss Sunshine (2006) and Boyhood (2014), as well as the Oscar-nominated drama Beasts Of The Southern Wild (2012).
The last time a Singaporean film was selected for Sundance was Royston Tan's drama 15 in 2004.
The accolades Tan had received years earlier for her short films had marked her as a film-maker to watch, not long after she completed her advanced diploma in film production in 2005 at Ngee Ann Polytechnic.
Dahdi (Granny), in which an elderly widow living on Pulau Ubin comes across a young asylum- seeking girl, was named Best South-east Asian Short Film at the Singapore International Film Festival in 2014.
She was hailed as Best Director at the same festival in 2007 for Fonzi, about a character who realises she is not real.
In 2006, her short film about causality, 10 Minutes Later, won silver at the Czech Republic's Brno Sixteen film festival.
Pop Aye's executive producer Anthony Chen, a winner at Cannes Film Festival and the Golden Horse Awards for the family drama Ilo Ilo (2013), says: "We hope to continue the wave of recent successes that Singapore films have achieved with Pop Aye. This empowers us even more in the work that we do at Giraffe Pictures, supporting and nurturing emerging Singaporean and Asian film-makers."
The film's producers are looking to release it in Singapore in the second half of next year after it makes its rounds on the international festival circuit.
Correction Note: An earlier version of this article stated that the last Singaporean film selected for Sundance was Meng Ong’s Miss Wonton in 2000. This is incorrect. It should be Royston Tan's 15 in 2004.