(Dir. Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Thailand, 2004)
Idiosyncratic and unapologetically puzzling filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul never shies away from his myriad of disparate influences, and yet his work seemingly exists in a world of its own. There are precedents for bifurcated and otherwise fractured narratives in cinema at large – notably and most infamously Lynch’s Mulholland Drive – but the sharp, yet surprisingly natural divides in Tropical Malady and Syndromes and a Century prove he’s speaking his own filmic language entirely. He operates outside the rigid confines of the Thai film industry, but he unashamedly borrows from his nation’s cinematic past. He cites the cartoons of his childhood as an inspiration for the furry characters in Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives and the melodramatic romances of Thai movies for the central love story of Tropical Malady.
That the heart-on-sleeve dialogue between Malady’s two would-be lovers left Thai audiences unimpressed yet wooed the international film festival circuit perhaps speaks to Weerasethakul’s cunning approach to his art. It begs the question, who are his films for? His fellow countrymen rarely flock to his latest feature (or are prevented from seeing it entirely in the case of Syndromes’ notorious censorship), but cinephiles spread across the globe can’t seem to get enough. Despite the unsurprising pretentions detractors assign his apparently intentionally confusing films, Weerasethakul is not a self-serious artist who ascribes meaning to his own work. In fact, these unlikely influences that inspire him and the subtle humor undercurrent in each of his films suggests quite the opposite. In this regard, his sly approach to his craft – including viewer perception and playfulness with form – recall the great work of Iranian master Abbas Kiarostami who similarly befuddled and wowed audiences throughout the ‘90s.
His first major international success and third feature overall Tropical Malady presents the most jarring break in narrative of his films thus far. Syndromes’ urban second half is an easily recognized reflection of its rural counterpart, and Uncle Boonmee’s abstract back half still continues the first’s plot and characters. But, Malady derails the story of Keng and Tong entirely, providing a mid-film title card almost as if to suggest the beginning of a new film. And yet, the two halves are inextricably connected. The film opens with the new friendship of two young men blossoming into a potential romance. Weerasethakul tells the rather straightforward story of Tong and Keng with tenderness at a graciously steady-moving pace. There’s passion in their increasingly intimate interactions, but reserved and shy Tong (Sakda Kaewbuadee) ultimately denies the more forward and expressive Keng (Banlop Lomnoi) the consummation of a romantic relationship. Weerasethakul hints as much with Tong resisting Keng’s consistent advances by turning them into playful games, but his final dismissive gesture – prompted either by nervousness or outright rejection, Weerasethakul never reveals – provides the catalyst for the abrupt shift in narrative. He exits the frame into the darkness of the night leaving Keng standing alone beneath a dim streetlight – a marvelous shot conveying depths of emotional isolation.
But, then something bizarre and wholly unexpected happens. A disruptive and expertly cued pop song interlude betrays the melancholic demeanor of an abandoned Keng and segues into the film’s poetic second half centered on a traditional Thai fable recounting the legend of a loosed shape-shifting tiger spirit tormenting a rural village and the hunter determined to protect its inhabitants. The names and relationships of Malady’s two leading men are dispensed with, but the hunter is easily recognizable as Keng and the naked tattooed spirit is Tong. With all peripheral characters and visual distractions of modern life stripped away, our two characters alone in the expansive jungle, the heart of Tropical Malady surfaces. In this seeming reverie, an abstraction of the first half’s near romance, Weerasethakul explores the notion of desire and pursuit, subsequently commenting rather profoundly on basic human nature.
Casting the pursuer as a hunter and the object of his affection as prey may at first read as crass metaphor, but Weerasethakul’s recurring Buddhist-influenced, bestial-human synthesis instead conjures a reverential sense of spirituality. Weerasethakul further blurs the distinction between man and beast (the shape-shifter appears alternately as man and tiger), human and spirit (the ghost wields supernatural powers yet maintains a firm presence in the physical realm), and even hunter and hunted as a communicative baboon reveals to Keng that this elusive spirit may very well be hunting him. The spirit certainly taunts the armed soldier throughout – wrestling him to the ground and tossing him down a hill, hanging his emptied bag out on a tree – but a brief shot of Tong’s naked stand-in sorrowfully wailing in the darkened jungle suggests that maybe both are equally tormented by this pursuit.
With Tropical Malady, Weerasethakul paints two sides of the same coin; he unearths the animalistic impulses that cause humans to pursue their innate sexual desires, and yet humanizes the inner beast by affirming that romance is propelled by love. To highlight this unending circle that places humans, animals, and spirits alike on equal footing, Weerasethakul envelops the echoes of the former Keng and Tong in the dense jungle teeming with life. The entire film – but the latter half especially – is an exercise in overwhelming sensory cinema. Aside from the aforementioned song twice used, Malady’s soundtrack primarily consists of the sounds of nature: the impenetrable buzz of insects, the crackle of foliage, leaves rustling in the wind, sheets of pouring rain. Visually, both Keng as hunter and Tong as spirit are at times difficult to make out as Weerasethakul so effectively blends them into their surroundings. The jungle as their pursuit has consumed them.
Though Weerasethakul’s story here is bittersweet – a delicate portrait of love, but a love never fully realized – it’s joyously irresistible due to its seductive imagery. The film is full of gorgeous shots of the Thai countryside – Keng and Tong waiting out the rain, the sun breaking through the canopy of the jungle, a gargantuan tree lit by a host of fireflies, lush, mist-covered rolling hills, a beautiful and haunting shot of a partially illuminated tiger. Even though Weerasethakul’s camera seems to favor natural scenery, he still generously captures the mundane beauty of city life – 7/11, tuk-tuks, fruit stands, meat vendors, a karaoke bar, aerobics in a shopping mall parking lot – glimpses that this writer who’s lived in northern Thailand for a short period time delighted in seeing. Tropical Malady is a film of exquisite beauty – in its visuals, delicate story, and poetically fractured structure. One of the greatest qualities of Weerasethakul’s cinema is that it’s not easy to pin down. Each of his unique films is wondrously open to interpretation and inviting of meditation. Tropical Malady may be his most accessible work yet, but it’s also his most instantly rewarding.