(Sud Pralad)

Directed by Apichatpong Weerasethakul. Thailand. 2004.

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Tropical Malady, the fourth feature by Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul, is a film of astonishing lyric power that explores, in myth and reality, the nature of love. The film is divided into a conventional story of friendship between two men, and a mytho-poetic tale that takes the viewer into the middle of a dense Thai jungle. It is a strange and haunting tone poem that is as multi-layered as the forest in which it is filmed and may require repeated viewing to fully unravel. The opening story is about the tentative, playful relationship between Dong (Sakda Kaewbuadee), a shy young farmer who lives with his parents in the Thai countryside and Keng (Banlop Lomnoi), a soldier on furlough from the Thai army. The relationship has homoerotic undertones but they are suggested rather than openly acknowledged.  

Tong is unsophisticated and appears uneasy in the relationship but never loses control, giving their friendship a charm and sweetness rarely depicted on screen, especially between members of the same sex. They go to a movie, participate in an exercise class, take a sick dog to a clinic, and visit an underground temple. Their relationship develops in simple gestures of affection. Keng gives Tong a Clash tape but later tells him that when he gave him the tape he forgot to give him his heart. He places his hand on Tong's knee but the boy turns it into a mischievous game of squishing his hand with his other leg rather than acknowledging its sensual implications. Keng asks Tong if he can lay in his lap and Tong says "no", then a minute later, he changes that to "no problem". A scene in which Keng mouths Tong's hand after he had urinated and Tong returns the favor with equal passion advances the sexual nature of their relationship but it is not consummated.  

As Keng leaves for the country to resume his duties, the screen goes blank and we are transported into a land of myth and time in which a folk tale is being narrated in a jungle setting. Called A Spirit's Path, the mood suddenly changes to dark and foreboding. A narrator tells us that a shaman has transformed himself into a tiger and is terrorizing the countryside that Keng is under orders to protect. The soldier's mission is to subdue the tiger (Tong) and release the spirit of a white cow. The lovers are now the hunter and the hunted. Running through the jungle with tattoos all over his body, Tong is a naked man who can shape-shift into an animal at will. As Keng hunts his elusive prey, he begins to lose his grounding in the normal constructs of reality and the framing of the jungle scenes create an atmosphere of brooding surreal intensity. 

Stripped of the pretense we call civilization, on the border between two worlds, Keng's life unfolds in a desperate vision, suggesting that we are the both the dreamer and that which is being dreamt. He talks to animals, sees ghosts, and receives advice from a baboon who tells him “The tiger trails you like a shadow. He is lonesome. Kill him to free him from his world, or let him devour you to enter his world.” As the tiger perches on the branch of a tree staring at him, Keng knows that in order to save his life, he must be willing to sacrifice it. "I give you my spirit, my flesh, and my memories", he tells the tiger, and "Every drop of my blood sings our song A song of happiness. There… do you hear it?” Beyond the shadow of illusion, Tropical Malady forces us to see in the dark. What begins with a wan smile ends in a fever of ecstasy. 


Howard Schumann
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