This weekend I finally saw a film I'd wanted to catch when I first heard about it two years ago, and then again when it played last June at the IFC in Greenwich Village: Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Tropical Malady. This remarkable little film, the American-educated Thai director's third, is perhaps his most formally daring, a fact that initially provoked negative or dismissive--"inscrutable," wrote one viewer--reviews at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival before the movie walked away with the Jury Prize at week's end.
The utterly original love story is set in contemporary Thailand, and broken into two halves. The first half is a realistic narrative about the courtship of a diffident rustic, Tong (at left, played by Sakda Kaewbuadee) by a handsome soldier, Keng (at right, played by Banlop Lomnoi). When the movie opens, a group of soldiers, including Keng, is posing for photos in a field, and when the camera pulls back, you soon realize that they're snapping themselves in front of a corpse. This juxtaposition, of natural beauty and the periodic levity of existence with death and an undercurrent of fateful danger, runs throughout the film. The cameras follow the soldiers to a clearing where they stop at the home of a rural family, which turns out to Tong's, and soon enough, we learn that one of Keng's methods for getting close to Tong is by bringing food to his mother.
Weerasethakul handles the lyrical, meandering yet sometimes abruptly cut narrative so subtly at times that it approaches obliqueness. Like another of my favorite directors, Tsai Ming-Liang, he's drawn to a form of associative narration that requires the viewer to pay close attention and assemble the pieces into coherence. We follow Tong, who sometimes dresses up like the soldier he once was to improve his employment chances, journey back and forth to part-time jobs in the city, playing soccer with friends, walking through the bustling, crowded urban streets. At times he's accompanied by Keng, who tries to teach him how to drive a truck to get a delivery job, while at another point they take Tong's pet dog to the veterinarian where they learn it's suffering from cancer. At times, Weerasethakul employs a handheld documentary style, closely tracking the actors, while at other times he relies on long-take, deep-focus shots like those of Welles, Wong or Tsai. This latter effect produces a physical sense of the quotidian and of time's passing, but sometimes, especially when capturing certain bucolic scenes, for example, a feeling of temporal suspension, almost as if the clock had stopped altogether. Yet another effect is to mirror the palpable yearning, eros's open chasm which we've all felt and which, like narrative, is structured in time and yet seemlingly outside it.
The courtship ramps up when Keng, who has been trying to be clear to Tong that he has a crush, writes the country man a note telling him that he likes him, which Tong initially plays off as a joke. Keng continues wooing him with the gift of tape of his favorite band, The Clash and through regular meals with Tong's family. He's not averse to dropping by early in the morning, either; in one scene he sits, in full military garb, in Tong's still rumpled sheets, flipping through a photobook, while Tong chats with his mother outside about the murder of cattle by a predator of some sort. One afternoon when the two men are sitting on porch overlooking the jungle and Keng has convinced Tong to let him rest his head in his lap, a local woman realizes the nature of their relationship and takes them to visit a cave shrine. This scene, like others, affords Weerasethakul an opportunity to comment on the ongiong processes of globalization and glocalization; one minute the woman is talking about spirits and the next about the Thai version of the popular TV show "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire." In the cave shrine, we get another such moment when the two men kneel and light incense before the shrine, which consists of a blinking Santa Claus statuette, strung with lights and playing "God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman."
A key moment in this scene comes when the woman offers to guide the two men through a narrow cave passage that could spell death. Tong, who has been so shy and reticent, is willing to risk it, while Keng, the warrior and courtier, begs off, a reversal that will become crucial, I think, for the film's allegorical second half. Eventually the two men accompany two other women to town, they take in a film, during which Keng finally places his hand on Tong's knee, and the first portion of the film ends with the two men together, under a lamp at night, finally sharing their affection. Keng offers devotional kisses, while Tong's response is strikingly promissory, passionate and animalistic, before he disappears into the dark, after which Keng, who has literally won his beloved's hand, zooms off down the road on his bike, in unbridled joy. This, I said to myself, is what love can look like.
And then, the film switches into its fabular, fantastical second half, using a Khmer folk tale as its foundation. In essence, we switch into the realm of allegory. As we learned in the first half, something is killing the livestock. In the second half, we learn, through a brief cinematic dramatization, that villagers realize it's the spirit of a shaman who's transformed himself into a tiger that haunts the jungle. Tong, mysteriously, has disappeared. The army sends Keng into the forest to hunt down the tiger/shaman. And so the game, by day and night, begins. Tong, it turns out, is the shaman who can transform into a tiger, and the film literally depicts the nude, striped spirit-man-beast in its journey through the forest, both avoiding and stalking the beautiful soldier. There are several very slow passages in this half of the film, but also several that literally startle you out of your seat: a baboon that jabbers in Thai (that's translated into subtitled English, of course); the tormented shaman-beast Tong hurling Keng down a steep hillside; the glowing, translucent spirit of a mauled cow that rises in the darkness and, to Keng's astonishment, hurries off down a hidden path; and the final, marvelous--sublime?--moment when the soldier, exhausted, bedraggled, armed, inflicted with the malady that has driven him to this end, confronts his beloved, now transformed into his terrifying, feline apotheosis, in order to make the ultimate sacrifice....
Tropical Maladyis a film that, because of its complexity, may turn off many viewers, I admit. But it also offers one of the freshest versions of desire and romance that I've ever seen. I particularly loved Banlop Lomnoi's acting, and his depiction as an unapologetic man, a soldier no less, who was willing to act openly on his desire. (I know almost nothing about sex and gender practices and performances in Thailand, so I'm not sure how exceptional the narrative is.) I also loved the ingenuity of the two halves, and the utter strangeness of the second narrative, its refusal to yield easy meanings, as well as its pictorial richness and willingness to push the limits of plausibility. But then anything is possible in a (folk-)tale, right? I cannot wait to catch Weerasethakul's next film, and I feel even more strengthened in my conviction that there are ways other than the conventions of standard realism to approach life's most central and weighty themes.