2005Director: Apichatpong Weerasethakul
Cast: Banlop Lomnoi, Sakda Kaewbuadee
haven’t yet seen Ang Lee’s gay western or Terrence Malick’s Pocahontas picture, but I know this: Brokeback Mountain and The New World had both better be pretty damn spectacular, if they hope to hold up alongside Tropical Malady. Thai auteur Apichatpong “Joe” Weerasethakul’s third feature is both the most poignantly realized same-sex romance since Wong Kar-wai’s Happy Together, and the richest inquiry into the relationship between man and nature since The Thin Red Line, if not Days of Heaven. It’s also the year’s most confounding, rewarding filmic head-fuck—confounding, in part, because it’s actually more straightforward than it may, at first, seem; rewarding in that it leaves you pondering more than why you didn’t realize that Bruce Willis was dead all along.
The first half of the film casually follows a summer fling, between Keng (Banlop Lomnoi), a soldier on leave, and a country boy named Tong (Sakda Kaewbuadee). We watch, from the intimate vantage point of almost-documentary, as Keng and Tong flirt, spoon, discuss music (the “Clash” mentioned in the film is, apparently, a popular Thai group not Joe Strummer and Co.), and enjoy colorful day-trips: you know, typical we-just-started-dating-and-we’re-having-so-much-fun stuff—pointedly, the sort of moments we wistfully reflect back on after things have soured. Everyone’s all smiles (literally, and maybe curiously) as the couple falls increasingly head-over-heels. Weerasethakul’s tone shifts subtly but discernibly, however, when Tong’s beloved dog takes ill, and the sticky, fleeting summer days fade into urban night. Then, just as passions between Keng and Tong reach their boiling point, the bottom drops out—albeit with as much sound and fury as that proverbial tree falling in the forest with no one around to hear it.
Tropical Malady’s latter section opens with a shot of Keng waking from what seems a long, deep sleep. The composition is, at once, more striking than anything in the verite-style first half, and even bears more than a passing resemblance to Van Gogh’s famous painting of his bedroom at Arles. Through observation (from here on out, there’s no conventional dialogue), we gather that Keng has been stationed in the jungle, in pursuit of a tiger that’s been killing off local livestock. What occurred in the (presumed) ellipses is up to us to determine, but by the time Keng’s tiger shows up in the form of his former lover, and/or vice-versa, questions of narrative logic are usurped by some decidedly more provocative queries.
In terms of both formal chutzpah and sheer, jaw-dropping beauty, this radical stretch of celluloid leaves nearly everything else I’ve seen this year looking rather shabby, by comparison. In fact, it’s such strong, ambitious filmmaking that, initially, the far less radical opening half may retrospectively appear lacking, or uninspired. Repeat viewings, though, reveal a carefully conceived masterpiece, replete with a myriad of compositional and thematic rhymes linking the seemingly disparate halves. The fact that each section features its own credit sequence is suggestive of their potential as stand-alone works, but the whole is finally richer than the sum of its parts. By my third go-‘round with Tropical Malady, I fondly recalled my experience reading Ulysses and Finnegans Wake back to back several summers ago. With the fourth, the comparison felt more apt still, though I was somewhat less sure which Joyce novel each half represented.
Weerasethakul’s previous two features (not counting The Adventures of Iron Pussy, co-credited to Michael Shaowanasi, which I haven’t seen), Mysterious Object at Noon and Blissfully Yours, peaked the interest of so-inclined cinephiles. Tropical Malady is the magnum opus we’ve been waiting for. It’s a landmark achievement that instantly justifies mention of Joe’s name alongside the likes of Kiarostami, Hou, Wong, Tarr, Tsai, Denis, Linklater, and Jia—i.e., the uppermost echelon of contemporary filmmakers.
By: Josh Timmermann
Published on: 2005-12-12