Monday Editor’s Pick: Tropical Malady (2004)

by on March 12, 2012Posted in: Editor's Pick

Playing Mon March 19 at 7:30 at Jacob Burns Center [Program & Tix]
*Director Weerasethakul in-person

Who knew??! Apichatpong Weerasethakul is in residency up in Westchester County. The Thai auteur superstar will accompany the opening night screening at Jacob Burns Center, and the complete retrospective continues thru April 8. Alt Screen thinks this is worth the Metro-North ride – it will give you time to learn how to pronounce and spell ole Joe’s name.

Nick Schager for Lessons of Darkness:

Divided evenly into two distinct – yet thematically harmonious – halves, Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Tropical Malady is as stylistically striking as it is adventurous. Sculpted with a delicacy that amplifies its mood of tentative romanticism and mysterious passion, Weerasethakul’s intimate love story begins with attractive soldier Keng’s (Banlop Lomnoi) courtship of reticent country boy Tong (Sakda Kaewbuadee), only to transform at its mid-point into a feverish fable about Keng’s jungle-set pursuit of a mythical shape-shifting creature. Though these two narrative strands are aesthetically dissimilar – one shy and reserved, the other heated and haunting – they nevertheless function as alternate (and inextricably associated) portraits of erotic longing, lust, dread and anxiety. The opening section’s blissful reverie of blossoming affection finds its dark, dangerous flip-side in the latter segment’s shadowy portrait of inexplicable desire, and throughout Weerasethakul’s gorgeous camera work and hypnotic pacing create an atmosphere of yearning for amorous communion. Whether with a scene of Keng and Tong intertwining their hands and legs in a movie theater, or through Keng’s piercing gaze into the eyes of a tiger (which becomes a stare directly into the camera), Weerasethakul regularly alludes to his film’s own cinematic artificiality, even as his tender, heady Tropical Malady pulsates with a fervent, exultant passion free of pretense.



Nathan Lee for Film Comment:

He’s given us permission to call him Joe, but when it comes to his movies, Apichatpong Weerasethakul concedes nothing. Intuitive, intractable, visionary to the core, Tropical Malady is the cure for what ails a sickly film culture. Pregnant with metamorphic energies and vibrant dialectics, this sly hybrid masterpiece is a uniter, not a divider. Call it Neo Magic Realism, and marvel at the subtlety of effect (lens flares as spiritual stirrings), the euphoric address (that guy in the bathroom is smiling at you), the sheer wonderment of a moonlit tree shimmering with phantom fireflies.


Manohla Dargis for The New York Times:

Love is the drug, a game for two and, in the otherworldly Thai film “Tropical Malady,” unabashedly strange. A fractured love story about the mystery and impossibility of desire, the film was directed by Apichatpong Weerasethakul. Perched between two worlds, two consciousnesses and two radically different storytelling traditions, this new feature shows a young filmmaker pushing at the limits of cinematic narrative with grace and a certain amount of puckish willfulness.


Scott Tobias for The Onion AV Club:

Once Lomnoi starts conversing with a baboon, Tropical Malady has detoured so far off the trail that many won’t be prepared to follow it further into the darkness. At first, the two halves seem like different movies altogether, but the subtle rhymes between them gradually make it clear that they’re really mirror images of each other, telling the same story of romantic pursuit and desire. The feelings that are just under the surface in the first half—excitement, fear, passion, longing—come charging forth in the second, when Lomnoi faces the scary-yet-appealing prospect of being devoured by the tiger and joining him in the spirit world. A peculiar concept, to be sure, but in Weerasethakul’s assured hands, unforgettably beautiful to behold.



Ed Gonzalez for Slant:

There’s a scene in David O. Russell’s intermittingly brilliant I Heart Huckabees where Dustin Hoffman’s existential detective likens a bed sheet to the tissue that connects the world around us. In Tropical Malady, Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s more successfully evokes an existential fiber between sexual desire and cultural mythos in the pastoral jungle outside a Thai village when a young soldier, Keng (Banlop Lomnoi), falls in love with a country boy, Tong (Sakda Kaewbuadee). Because Weerasethakul equates Keng and Tong’s suffocating love for one another to a twisted landscape of trees, Tropical Malady could just as easily have been called Unbearably Yours. A glorious mood piece, the film mirrors the yin of Keng’s pursuit of Tong throughout the first half of the film to the yang of Keng’s spiritual journey through the second half. Though the film’s two parts seem as if they could work independently of one another, the first half clearly anticipates the second, or, more precisely, the second half seems to reimagine the more conventional first part as a primitive tribal dance. Both parts seem to tell the same story—only one says it with considerably less words. Keng’s love for Tong borders on unrequited: When Keng smells Tong’s hand after Tong urinates on the side of the road, he returns the erotic sentiment by aggressively (maybe condescendingly) licking Keng’s hand. Earlier, Keng grabs Tong’s leg during an incredibly erotic scene in a movie theater, to which an excited Tong responds by trapping Keng’s hand between his thighs and grabbing his shoulders with his arm. The twisting arms and legs anticipate the tangle of trees that similarly bind them during the film’s second half. Both love story and folk tale, Tropical Malady intersects eros with cultural traditions, heralding the thrill of the chase and asserting that the deepest romances are not sexual but spiritual in nature. Literally.



Nathan Lee again, for The New York Sun:

Now we have “Tropical Malady,” the first of his films to receive a proper theatrical release in America, and the case for his work has only grown clearer. Mr. Weerasethakul is the most exciting new director in the world, period. He’s the real deal, an authentic visionary who’s pushing the art of cinema to places it’s never been.
Through this exacting, effortless blend of (magic) realism and evocative visual poetry, Mr. Weerasethakul charges his narrative with metamorphic energies. The movie begins with a quote from Japanese novelist Ton Nakajima: “All of us are by nature wild beasts. Our only duty as humans is to become like trainers who keep their animals in check, and even teach them to perform tricks alien to their bestiality.” Watchful eyes will see this theme subtly deployed throughout the film.
The two parts of “Tropical Malady,” like those of “Mulholland Drive” and “In Praise of Love,” interact in an intuitive alchemy of the imagination, their forms and meanings prodigiously cross-fertilizing. Simply put, the movie is a queer kind of love story. On another level, it dramatizes states of being on the threshold of transformation. In its furthest depths, the picture stirs with the generative energies of love and myth, feeling and representation. Like all the great visionaries, Mr. Weerasethakul guides his audience toward the infinite, indicating a territory beyond words, sounds, or images. “Tropical Malady” expands and invigorates the cinema.


Michael Koresky for Reverse Shot:

Tropical Malady, even more than the Thai director’s wonderfully opaque and complexly mundane previous film Blissfully Yours, relies heavily on emotional signification rather than theoretical distancing, certainly a rarity for a filmmaker whose works so often approach avant-garde. A common word used to describe Tropical Malady after its premiere at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival was “inscrutable,” an easy escape route out of the film’s mythic plunge. However, I cannot think of a recent film as clear-eyed and appealingly lucid as this one: elemental in its regard towards love, primitive in its tactical mythmaking, ennobling in its uncompromised simplicity. Following the initially tentative and eventually rabidly passionate love affair between soldier Keng and manual laborer Tong in a rural Thai village, Weerasethakul nearly decimates all forms of conventional romance narrative. Reminiscent of Mulholland Drive in the way that its emotionally engaging characters ultimately metamorphose into walking metaphors for fundamental human passions and essential truths, Tropical Malady imbues its every moment with something simultaneously universal and culturally specific. That its deep, thick forest of tangled vines and articulate primates couldn’t be any less alienating is Apichatpong’s miracle.
The quiet of the jungle is nearly overwhelming; for long passages of the film, we’re treated to nothing more than the sound of crickets, the images of branches swinging, the rustle of leaves, the nearly indecipherable silhouette of a man searching for his transformed animal lover in the richest, pitchest black of night. If we take love itself to be the tropical malady of the title, then it is here, in the unearthly silence of the forest, that the sickness becomes so all-enveloping. Terrified of infestation, the tiger, a feral personification of man’s heart’s desires, leaps off into the dense night, leaving his soldier lover bereft. For the remainder of the film, there is no separation between the natural and the otherworldly; when a single firefly drifts across the screen, in long shot, towards a gloriously moon-lit gargantuan tree swaying in the breeze, upon contact it seems to light the entire trunk and branches with a lovely inner glow. Here, the director achieves something essential to folk-telling that cinema rarely is able to replicate; through his composure, Weerasethakul creates a visual bedtime story, a soft lullaby.

Koresky further draws out his comparison with David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive here.

Chuck Stephens for the San Francisco Bay Guardian:

The astonishing and Cannes award-winning new feature by director Apichatpong “Joe” Weerasethakul is neither clear-cut nor entirely mysterious, though it’s a connection that seems as evocative and elusive as the movie itself. Structured as two visually and emotionally distinctive if narratively and thematically interlinked halves, Tropical Malady evolves from frictions between the real and the hallucinated and pits initially welcoming smiles and constant playfulness against irrational desires and overwhelming dread. The film’s first half consists of an extremely sunny and lighthearted, if slightly discombobulated, portrait of the romance that develops between Keng a soldier on temporary leave from his regular station patrolling a dense Thai forest, and Tong, a fresh-faced country boy who inexplicably walks off into the night just as the affair is heating up and the film has reached its one-hour mark. In the weave of folkloric phantasms and ongoing psychic schisms that make up Tropical Malady‘s second half, the smiles of the first are swallowed by the night when Keng finds himself alone and back in the jungle, tracking a mysterious animal that’s believed to be devouring local livestock.

Given that Keng is also attempting to come to grips with the hole Tong left in his heart, one might expect the companionship of the film’s first half will give way to isolated loneliness in the second – but that expectation dissolves with the arrival of a talking monkey, a glowing tree that emits otherworldly bleeps and static buzz, the pale poltergeist that rises up and wanders off from the carcass of a cow, and a panting and enormous tiger that seems to be stalking Keng and projecting its thoughts directly into the increasingly addled soldier’s head. Dissolved as well are any suspicions that, even with Strand Releasing distributing the film across the United States, Tropical Malady – whose Thai title is Sat Pralat, which can be translated as simply as “monster” or as ambiguously as “shape-shifter” – might turn out to be anything like your average boy-meets-boy romance. As Apichatpong’s admiring critics and fans have been pointing out for quite a while now, it’s precisely the significant absence of anything average or expected that makes the work of this extremely talented visionary seem so startlingly new.



James Quandt talks to Weerasethakul, for Artforum (March 2005):

The night shots in the jungle in Tropical Malady make the audience work to see.
They scared the producers for just that reason. I studied other films to see how the night shots could work. I wanted them to reveal the mind of the character, because at night the jungle is not visual; you rely more on sound. It becomes something else–spiritual, mysterious.

There’s a paradox in your work that’s a bit hard to describe. On one hand, there’s a documentary realism, an emphasis on process: the making of that weird skin cream in Blissfully Yours where you see all the chopping of vegetables, for instance, or that wonderful little “documentary” about ice cutting in the first half of Tropical Malady. But this realism becomes surreal, almost dreamlike in its matter-of-factness.
In Thailand, reality is that way. There’s no sense of its being strange or surreal. The architecture mixes everything, like Greek columns, with other styles, but no one sees it as unusual. Simply looking at things is fascinating for me, and I just put it in my films.

Everyone, including me, seems determined to make the two halves of Malady into a whole, to impose a pattern that makes it less strange or disjunctive. For me, it’s the same story told twice, of a pursuer (and his prey) who yearns to merge or converge with the other.

The break in the middle of the film is a mirror in the center that reflects both ways. I based the two characters in Tropical Malady on the two actors. It was rewritten to take into account their particular qualities–like shyness–and their improvised gestures during the shoot, and it changed again in the editing.

A theme that connects both halves, both stories, is memory.
Yes, the burden of memory. I wanted the first half to seem unrealistic, like a memory of something, so that when you leave the theater you question what was real and what wasn’t.



Kong Rithdee, also for Film Comment:

Tropical Malady‘s gay lovers, as awkward as they are authentic, shatter some of the entrenched stereotypes of arm-flapping homo-buffoons that overpopulate recent mainstream Thai third-gender comedies like Iron Ladies and Saving Private Tootsie. Observed with a kind of voyeurist languor, the film follows the couple on various outings- to the movies, a hospital, a forest shelter, a tacky roadside cafe, and, accompanied by a chatterbox auntie, down into an enormous cave rumored to be filled with pockets of poisonous gas. That the couple’s aimless wandering in the company of the chatty auntie reminds us of the erotic expedition undertaken by the factory girl and the Burmese immigrant in Blissfully Yours seems entirely intentional. But this inamorata remains more or less chaste, as disarmingly cute as puppy-lovers pitching playful woo even as the dialogue they share is spoken so softly we’re practically forced to eavesdrop in order to catch it. Some Thai critics accurately observed that, for all the ostensible naturalism of the film’s first half, Tropical Malady ultimately feels like a love story played out in some carefree utopia.

The docudramatic rendering of small-town life has, in fact, been a signature of every Apichatpong opus. The director, a native of Thailand’s largely rural northeastern province, studied filmmaking in Chicago but remains fascinated by the innocence and everyday guilelessness that characterizes country folk, whose easygoing sentiments and pervasive sense of kwam sabai (“relaxed propensities”) were often central to Thai films of yesteryear. And in that sense, Tong and Keng’s blossoming romance unfolds as honestly as an old-fashioned melodrama, reflecting a Third World cinema performance style that’s often wrongly perceived as bad acting by western viewers. Ironically though, Tropical Malady achieves an extraordinary level of realism via this seemingly dated device: as modern films claim to depict authentic behavior by using professional actors, Apichatpong works backwards, using his actors to rediscover forgotten awkwardnesses and a new kind of cinematic innocence. In one delightful scene, Keng plies Tong with some of the sappiest sweet talk I’ve ever heard. At the Cannes screenings, no one so much as giggled during that sequence, but in Bangkok, the theaters rocked with laughter-not because Apichatpong was making a corny joke at the expense of simple country folk, but because of the certitude that plenty of young lovers in Thailand still actually talk like this. There’s something undeniably charming about a thoroughly modern filmmaker who has the anthropological honesty to recognize such untempered naïveté as evidence of something altogether sublime.



Chuck Stephens again, admonishing against misinterpretations of the film and talks to Weerasethakul, for The Village Voice:

One good place to start with Tropical Malady is to disregard an otherwise reliably astute critic’s description of the first half as a Sundance-y gay romance—or indeed, the notion that the film’s A side is any more reality based than its unsuitable-for-daytime-airplay side B. Despite the “Land of Smiles” nonchalance with which the affections between the leads appear to be received, the notion that same-sex romance is socially accepted throughout Thailand is as far from reality as a tree that emits electro-bleeps and staticky blorps. “Even though the first part is presented quite casually and sometimes in an almost documentary manner,” Apichatpong explains, “if you sense that there’s something not quite right about the people and the environment, you’re probably right.”
As suspicious of the enlightenments of modern life as he is of the supposed divide between this life and the next, Apichatpong remains less interested in how far we’ve come than in how much we’ve already refused to learn. The further Tropical Malady progresses, the deeper it retreats into aspects of the past—from the jungle adventures of Noi Inthanon (“the Thai Hemingway”) to approximations of temple paintings. “That’s the way people used to tell stories, on a temple wall,” the director says, a bit wistfully. “Because a sacred space was the last place people thought would get demolished, it seemed like a cautious way to preserve memories. To put it simply, in the second half, as the character goes back to nature, it’s as if he’s going back to a time when there was no civilization, and so the film’s style needed to change to something ancient too. That’s why I used silent film techniques like intertitles and paintings to tell the story, since I’m sometimes quite old-fashioned. Really, I didn’t think I was really making such a contemporary film here,” Apichatpong whispers, just before his cell phone starts chirping. “Sometimes—sometimes—I feel like it’s still a long, long time ago.”


Dennis Lim, also for The Village Voice:

World cinema’s premier maker of mysterious objects, Apichatpong Weerasethakul is on a one-man mission to change the way we watch movies. Rich and strange, postmodern and prehistoric, his films foster an experience of serene bewilderment and—for the willing viewer—euphoric surrender. They are suffused with a sense of wide-open possibility that sometimes explodes into epiphany—as in 2002’s sensual pastoral Blissfully Yours, which, a third of the way through, hits the reset button by way of a long-delayed credit roll.

Like Blissfully Yours and Apichatpong’s first feature, the exquisite-corpse road movie Mysterious Object at Noon (2000), Tropical Malady promotes new ways of seeing. These films, at once rapt and dislocated, have the flavor of hallucinated documentary. They compel the viewer to look anew at the ordinary, to modulate their passive gaze into a patient, quizzical scrutiny. And what’s more, Tropical Malady is a film that looks back at you. The characters have a habit of staring into the camera—a gesture that usually signifies complicity, though the effect is vaguely discomfiting here, since we’re not sure what we’re complicit in. Malady Diary, a making-of doc that I saw at the Bangkok Film Festival, sheds some light on the methodology behind the madness: Apichatpong tells his nonpro leads, Banlop Lomnoi and Sakda Kaewbuadee, to “act as if you’re in a movie.”
The rupture transmigrates the narrative into a mystical realm, but it’s unclear if Keng and Tong have been banished or elevated to this plane of existence. Was their love too intense for the material world? Does the fulfillment of animal hungers require the cover of darkness? The film’s mysteries are so cosmic that any attempt to ascribe allegory can seem puny. One offhand early scene may hold the key to the metaphysics. After a brief discussion about the persistence of memory through past and future lives, Keng (in one of the greatest lines in the history of courtship) tells Tong, “When I gave you the Clash tape I forgot to give you my heart. You can have it today.” He rubs his palm on his beloved’s back, as if massaging a piece of himself under the skin. This bifurcated film dramatizes what Roland Barthes in A Lover’s Discourse called “the dream of total union.” The soldier, face to face with the pursuer that is also the object of desire, heeds the advice of the talking baboon: “Let him devour you and enter his world.” And as the lovers merge—in an act of consumption and communion and consummation—so too, finally, do the film’s divided halves.


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