Tropical Malady (2004) ****
Directed by: Apichatpong Weerasethakul.
Written by: Apichatpong Weerasethakul.
Starring: Banlop Lomnoi, Sakda Kaewbuadee, Huai Dessom, Sirivech Jareonchon, Udom Promma.
The same can be said for his 2004 film, Tropical Malady, which many critics said was inscrutable, but I just think they’re trying too hard. The film contains a rupture at its midpoint – going from one story to a radically different one half way through, and yet both are essentially the same story, told in radically different styles. The two films, if you prefer, that make up Tropical Malady deepen the understanding of each other.
The first film is about a solider Keng (Banlop Lomnoi) and his romantic relationship with innocent country boy Tong (Sakda Kaewbuadee). This is a chaste love story, between two sickly sweet characters, who talk to each other in romantic clichés that are meant, I think, to be funny. That the dialogue is corny in the extreme is precisely the point – these two are in an old fashioned romance, in which sex seems to be the last thing on their mind. Instead they like to proclaim their love to each other like teenagers who barely understand the concept of love in the first place. It is the last scene in this film – where first Keng licks Tong’s fingers, and then Tong does the same, before smiling and walking off into the distance without a word, in which lust first shows itself – and it’s this scene that in effect causes the rupture in the film, and gives way to the fever dream that is the second half.
That second half starts with Keng, a soldier once more, waking up and finding out that another cow in the small village in which he has been stationed (presumably alone, since we see no other soldiers) has been taken, and that the villagers are blaming it on a mythical “Tiger Ghost”. Keng goes off into the jungle in search of this Tiger Ghost, and gets some strange help along the way – from a talking baboon (Joe loves talking monkeys), and a translucent cow). It shouldn’t surprise you to find that the Tiger Ghost, when Keng finally does track it down, turns out to be Tong.
The first half of the movie, with its chaste romance, is shot is duller colors – at least after the opening sequence when we see Keng, and his fellow soldiers, standing around a body on the outskirts of a jungle, snapping pictures of each other smiling. Their romance, with all its simplicity, is told in realistic fashion. The second half is full of bright colors – as if the dream world is more vivid than reality, which in the case of Joe’s films is certainly the case. His films operate on dream logic, not on realistic logic, which I think could explain why some have such a hard time liking his films.
Tropical Malady is a fascinating movie – one that, especially in the second half, plays like a dream that you cannot get out of your head. If in the first half love remains just out of reach for Keng. Both of these characters are being pursued by each other – meaning they are also pursuing each other – and yet the impression is that neither one can actually catch the other. They remain out of reach. The second half once again sees the two characters – now the soldier and the tiger ghost – pursuing each other. Once again it appears like this is where the characters belong – with each other – but that it may not be possible. The film is about man’s relationship with nature, and also about release through death. The film’s two halves illustrate a similar point – one in reality, one in the dream world.
I don’t expect that there are many people who want to see Joe’s films. They are not simple, yet they are not as complicated as people make them seem. People like to impose a classical structure to films – want films that are both complex and yet easy to understand. They want a films mysteries to be solved for them by the end of the film, because to a certain extent, it is more comforting that way. Joe doesn’t make films like that. You have to do work when you watch one of his films. And yet, I cannot help but think that he puts everything you need to know right there on the screen – in bright, beautiful colors – for all to see. You need to spend less time trying to figure it all out, and simply let his films wash over you.