There is no doubting that Tropical Malady is a strange film. It is perplexing and operates in registers that few films do, and thinking back on it I really want to like it for what it does, and for being so resolutely unlike other films. It is a film that pushes at the boundaries of what being human means, and what separates us from animals, but it does so in a demandingly oblique way, so much so that I’d actually seen the film nine years earlier but could not remember it at all (though that may just be my own memory being terrible).
The film uses a two act structure and through the re-use of the same lead actors the possibility is held out that the second part is a re-telling of the first. However, that doesn’t account for the experience of watching the film, which is to have one’s narrative expectations constantly rebuffed, though partly that’s just from my overfamiliarity with (and reliance upon) Hollywood screenwriting structures. Here, the characters are built up through short scenes suffused with silence, glimpsed haphazardly, accruing details of life in layers (Tong’s time spent in the army, riding on buses through the city, working in an ice factory). By the time the first act is coming to a close, we only have a sense of these two people, Keng and Tong, and their growing feelings for one another, and this is where the film abruptly and surprisingly changes tack.
For the second part of the film, the screen fades from black and a new credits sequence begins, with a new title, and now we’re in mythic territory, where the line between human and animal is limned by mystical figures. Keng is now a soldier stranded alone in the jungle and Tong, naked and tattooed, is hunting him, ostensibly a shaman who can take the form of an animal. This second world is one where a bird can communicate, subtitled on screen, but it’s shot in the same naturalistic style as the first part, just with a new, deeper and darker, jungle setting.
What we’re left with then is an atavistic psychological terrain, which takes elements of folk tradition and blends it with contemporary naturalistic filmmaking practices. It’s been a consistent thematic interest of Weerasethakul, up to his most recent film Lung Buymi raluk chati (Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, 2010), which shares some of the same atmosphere, and which is in fact foreshadowed by some dialogue in Tropical Malady.
The film leaves open a lot more questions than it can possibly answer, and is shrouded in enigma. For me, I just had trouble enjoying the way the film unfolded, and found the pacing and characters uninvolving. I concede that other viewers may have a quite different reaction, gauging from some of the more gushing reviews, and I just want to be up-front about my reactions. I am conscious that I have trouble with films dealing with the supernatural (many of which tend to fall into the horror genre, though here it’s more of an arthouse tradition), as I tend to be rather prosaic in my interests. Lovers of ghost stories with a tolerance for elliptical and quiet filmmaking may find Weerasethakul’s work rewarding, but speaking for myself, I found the experience tested my patience.
Director/Writer Apichatpong Weerasethakul อภิชาติพงศ์ วีระเศรษฐกุล; Cinematographers Jarin Pengpanitch จริน เพ็งพานิช, Vichit Tanapanitch วิชิต ธนาพานิชย์ and Jean-Louis Vialard; Starring Sakda Kaewbuadee ศักดา แก้วบัวดี, Banlop Lomnoi บัลลพ ล้อมน้อย; Length 125 minutes.
Seen at ICA, London, Sunday 24 October 2004 and Sunday 28 April 2013.