Note: This review was published in the July 1st issue of GAY CITY NEWS,
but it's not available on the paper's website.
Directed by Apichatpong Weerasethakul
In Thai with English subtitles
Opens June 29th at the IFC Center
A strikingly unique vision, “Tropical Malady” is one of the strangest love
stories ever told. Its hallmark is a combination of the mundane and mystical.
Divided into two parts, each with its own title and credits sequence, the
first seems to belong to the former and the second to the latter. Upon further
examination, the categories blur.
Weerasethakul makes exciting films about subjects
most directors would consider utterly banal. What could be simpler than
a couple enjoying a sex-filled afternoon picnic in the woods? What could
be more challenging to pull off successfully? It’s not easy to turn happiness
into a story. Not since Hou Hsiao-hsien’s 1996 “Goodbye South, Goodbye”
has anyone made a film as compelling about “doing nothing” as “Blissfully
Yours,” Weerasethakul’s second feature. It’s also one of the few recent explicit
art films to take a positive view of sex.
If the first half of “Tropical Malady” had to stand on its own, it would
feel rather slight. A soldier, Keng (Banlop Lomnoi), stationed in a rural
area falls in love with local boy Tong (Sakda Kaewbuadee). Weerasethakul
continues to show the ability to convincingly fabricate small moments of
everyday life (cutting ice blocks, taking a sick dog to the vet) that
worked so well in “Blissfully Yours.” Everyone seems to accept Keng and Tong’s
relationship. They’re not at all self-conscious about being a gay couple,
as they meet a succession of benevolent middle-aged women. In the May/June
issue of “Film Comment,” critic Kong Rithdee points out that Thai audiences
laughed at dialogue like “the other day, when I gave you that Clash tape,
I forgot to give my heart along with it,” although no one at Cannes did.
There’s something slightly off about the tone. It’s too hyperbolically cute
and cheerful to last.
Halfway through, something gives. When Tong licks Keng’s hand, the
film reaches a breaking point. This feral gesture pushes the relationship
in a physical direction that makes both men uncomfortable. Tong runs off,
leaving Keng to stare into the darkness. “The Spirit’s Path,” the second
half of “Tropical Malady,” brings Keng back, patrolling a forest for a tiger
that’s attacked villagers and their livestock. However, it soon ascends into
the stratosphere, suggesting that the tiger is really a shaman trapped in
a feline body. (The animal is portrayed by a man covered in makeup and paint.)
Keng spends several days in the woods tracking it.
Calling “Tropical Malady” a love story requires some qualifications.
To interpret it simply, one could see the second half as a metaphor for the
emotions underpinning the first half. However, Keng’s relationship to the
tiger is far more ambivalent than his attitude towards Tong. The tone of
the first half is relaxed and jovial, much like “Blissfully Yours,” while
“The Spirit’s Path” is tense and anxiety-ridden. In retrospect or with multiple
viewings, it’s easy to see premonitions all over the place. Animals lurk
in the background of many early scenes, while the forest is a constant presence.
“Tropical Malady” is a film about a great passion, encompassing a wide
range of negative emotions along with the positive. While Keng and the tiger
may have a symbiotic relationship, anger and obsession play a large role
in it. “The Spirit’s Path” doesn’t simply duplicate the first half’s narrative
in symbolic form. Weerasethakul takes an innocent love story as a starting
point but expands the subject out to its widest possible radius, exploring
poetry and spirituality as well as angst and suspense.
The oddball potency of “The Spirit’s Path” owes a great deal to Weerasethakul’s
painterly eye. Some critics have condescendingly suggested that he makes
films as if he had never seen anyone else’s. That may be going a bit too
far, but some of the freshness of Weerasethakul’s work may stem from his
background in the art world and the fact that he cites American avant-garde
directors as a major influence. (“Blissfully Yours” has often been compared
to Jean Renoir’s “A Day In The Country,” which he has never seen.) At night,
the forest becomes a dreamscape of greens and blacks, lit only by Keng’s
flashlight. The colors, altered digitally in post-production, are eerily
beautiful. Large portions of “Tropical Malady” are so dark that they’ll probably
be indistinct blurs on video, but on the big screen, they’re ravishingly
Saying that “ Tropical Malady” makes all other love stories seem tepid and
irrelevant would be hyperbole, but the film does make most of its counterparts
look trivial. As with “Blissfully Yours,” Weerasethakul has taken a seemingly
simple topic and treated it with tremendous thought and care, revealing the
rich drama underlying aspects of life most of us take for granted.
Who would have guessed that William Blake has a successor in Thailand?