Lost in the Movies: Tropical Malady

Tropical Malady

#55 in Best of the 21st Century?, a series counting down the most acclaimed films of the previous decade.

We’ve heard that love’s a bitch, and a battlefield, but in the 2004 Thai film Tropical Malady, writer/director Apichatpong Weerasethakul tells us it’s a tiger too. Or at least that’s one interpretation. Actually, at times it can be hard to know exactly what Apichatpong is after. As with the filmmaker’s later Syndromes and a Century (reviewed in a previous incarnation of this series), Tropical Malady divides neatly into two halves, but the way the halves relate to each other is different. In Syndromes, the different parts of the film are symmetrical, like parallel lines – they relate similar events in radically different surroundings. Malady on the other hand connects its first half and second half with a joint and then lets them spin in entirely different directions, until the thread connecting them seems stretched awful thin. The two halves are perpendicular rather than parallel – maybe they’re better considered as two separate films, but here they are presented together, their interconnections left for us to tease out.

For the first hour or so, the film tenderly follows a blossoming romance between Keng (Banlop Lomnoi), a soldier, and Tong (Sakda Kaewbuadee), a villager whose home Keng stays in. For a long stretch, their mutual attraction remains buried – we can sense it in Keng’s longing gazes at the boy, but it remains unclear if the more taciturn Tong shares Keng’s feelings. Indeed, the savvy mother seems to pick up on Keng’s love before Tong does. Meanwhile, the “narrative” flows along, not in one clear stream but many little eddies which wind their way through the picture. There are plenty of grace notes, anecdotal asides, little adventures – Weerasethakul is a director who drinks in distracting details, making them a part of his movies’ fabric. He takes a sensual approach to the world, civilized and natural alike, weaving a thick texture of sensory experience that is as important as – or more important than – any story being told.

But a story does unfold, as Tong slowly reciprocates Keng’s gestures. It becomes clear that while Keng is the more aggressive lover – actively pursuing Tong, flirting with him, putting his hand on Tong’s knee in a movie theater – he is also the more vulnerable. When the two descend into a claustrophobic cave deep underground, it is Keng who panics and wants to leave, Tong who teases and comforts him. Keng seems to know everyone around town, appears more sophisticated and experienced, and his demeanor and build are bigger, tougher-looking. Tong, on other hand, is slight, boyish, shy. Yet Tong’s gently withdrawn nature can become a implacable mask, and at times his quiet smile seems almost Sphinx-like, challenging Keng to fall under his spell, letting his soul be snatched. Which brings us to the second half: Keng sits on Tong’s bed, fingering a snapshot from years before and the film flickers and flashes. A drawing of a tiger emerges onscreen and new credits roll: from now on a narrator (or is the tiger’s voice?) and onscreen titles will guide us through the enactment of a folk tale. The legend of a tiger whose soul, severed from its body, haunts the jungle is retold with Keng and Tong’s romance in mind.

Or at least it seems to be, though the correspondences are inexact. While I’ve noted Tong’s passive power over Keng, to reconfigure the young man as a prowling tiger, openly dangerous and savage, is to distort the picture we’ve seen. One could posit it as Keng’s imaginings of the boy, or a projection of his own uncontrollable emotions onto the figure who provokes them, but it’s still somewhat confusing to see a naked Tong crawling through the ferns (he shifts between human and animal form), growling and tossing Keng into ravines. The shift in tone and style is startling as well – the second half of Malady is intensely controlled and focused, eschewing all the distractions Weerasethakul embraced initially in order to follow Keng through a slowly paced, often repetitive hunt through the woods. It’s a bold development, and commands our admiration but at times – at least to me – it also seemed too self-conscious an experiment, as if the conception carried all the meaning and left the execution hanging. At its most indulgent, Act II can play like a more restrained version of the Cremaster cycle, an art project audaciously conceptual and hard to take at dramatic face value.

However, there are a number of striking, absorbing visuals, from the folk drawings Weerasethakul introduces from time to time (this is as as close as he will come to collage-like asides of Act I) to the image of a tree whose leaves seem to be moving, dancing in the dusk – are those fireflies or flitting souls moving amongst its branches? There has been an undercurrent of melancholy, even darkness, from the get-go; the film opens with the soldiers finding a dead body in a field and playfully posing next to it. While flipping through the DVD before beginning the movie I ran across a trailer for a Leopold-Loeb movie; misunderstanding its presence on the disk, I half-expected the nice boys of Tropical Malady to turn sociopathically murderous by the end of the film. Were they to go from a quiet couple to a quasi-Bonnie & Clyde, a newfound Sailer & Lula, whose romance carries them over into transgressive violence? Not quite (unless you consider the closing dream literal and the cattle victims of the tiger tragic).

Yet there may be other David Lynch connections to be found, even if Wild at Heart is not exactly evoked. Yes, there’s the discovery of a dead body (“Twin Peaks”) in a field (Blue Velvet). More important, the structure of the story seems subtly evocative of Mulholland Dr. (spoilers for that film ahead). Like Lynch, Weerasethakul divides his love story into a more literal representation of the romance and an intense, metaphorical dream which elevates the lovers to mythological status. Both films evoke the vulnerability of the wounded lover, albeit in different contexts (it is not clear how Keng’s infatuation will end, and in Malady’s case, it is an immersion in love the dreamer fears, not rejection). And both remind us that sometimes we can best understand – or at the very least, gain new meanings – from a situation by digging into the unconscious, exploring myth, and filtering the everyday through a dreamlike prism. It’s a malady that’s not only tropical, but may be an undercurrent of all movies – syndromes for our century of cinema.

Previous film: Elephant

Next film: L'Enfant

(originally linked on The Sun's Not Yellow)

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