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Tropical Malady

1 rating: 5.0
A movie directed by Apichatpong Weerasethakul

The Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul films with quiet care the slowly awakening love of a cool, composed soldier, Keng (Banlop Lomnoi), and an uneducated country boy, Tong (Sakda Kaewbuadee). The tenderness of their growing bond is palpable and … see full wiki

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1 review about Tropical Malady

Delicate and sensual (but enigmatic) love story that hints at much larger themes

  • May 16, 2008
Tropical Malady is an enigmatic and subtle film that is on one level a simple story of a budding romance between two young men, and on another level takes on mythic dimensions in its exploration of the nature of desire and the relation between the human and the animal. As described on the back of the dvd, the story is fairly straightforward: a soldier out on a mission meets a young man on a farm, when they meet again in the city they begin a friendship that blossoms into romance, and then, just as they admit that their feelings for each other are mutual the young man goes missing. Hearing rumors that the young man has been transformed into a tiger, in an apparent repetition of legend, the soldier goes off alone into the jungle to search for him.

As a matter of fact, the story is not so straightforward -- and it is not at all clear watching the film that the second part in which the soldier searches for a tiger/man is a continuation of the first part in which the same actors begin to fall in love and finally acknowledge their passion for each other. In other films by the same director, Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul, he displays an interest in the idea of telling the same story twice or multiple times with significant variation, whether with different characters or during a different time. I think it more likely that is what is going on here -- so the question the film poses is how are these two stories connected? An obvious clue is placed at the beginning of the film in the form of a quotation -- that states we are all wild animals who act on instinct and to become human we must learn how to train that animal inside and teach it to act in ways it would not in the wild. What I find interesting about the connection between the first and the second parts of the film is that in the first the soldier is clearly dominant, flirting heavily with the young man who is shown to be somewhat ambivalent about the direction their friendship is heading. In the second the soldier is hunting the young man who is a tiger but in this case the tiger/man seems to have the upper hand. While this connection raises a lot of questions it suggests clearly that the director is working through ideas in this film.

But what really makes the ideas in Weerasethakul's films worth exploring is the intrigue that develops with his style. Among those critics who have been taken with his work (myself included) descriptions of his style characterize it again and again as lavish, poetic, sensual, rich, exotic, stunning, ravishing. There is something to this: there is an innocence in his eye, a freshness in his vision, that makes it feel as if he is doing something very different with his camera than what we are used to. Of course the same thing might be (and has been) described as obtuseness or ineptitude -- but I think that what accounts for that is that he refuses to depict things in a linear fashion (and that is what is misleading about the linear description of the plot on the dvd case). He almost completely avoids what has been called "continuity editing" -- cutting from one shot to the next at just the moment when the audience is ready to see what comes next, or when a movement will distract them from the jump in camera position, in order to give the illusion of separate shots blending into one continuous sequence. For the most part, his shots are longish shots that are designed to stand on their own and are lain out in sequence to give a sense of complete moments that resonate with one another but don't give a clear sense of an ongoing action in a relatively seamless space and time. That can be uncomfortable and may appear a sign of incompetence, but I don't think it is. Many or even most of the shots do stand on their own as very sensual and fresh, having a vitality that is not quelled because we are being informed about what specifically we are to see in them and abstract from them as the relevant bit of information. At the same time most of the shots seems to remind of or prepare the way for the other shots. The past is never quite over and the present shot always anticipates or resonates in future shots; events repeat or seem to repeat with subtle variations so that they blend together.

The one technique he uses repeatedly in this film that matches with "standard" editing technique is the reaction shot: the shot of someone looking at someone else who is looking back at them. There are several sequences in which this kind of shot is central and they are very intriguing. A group of soldiers sit around dinner with a farmer family, and the mother looks on at the looks that the soldiers give each other and the looks between a soldier and her daughter and a soldier and her son. Her looks tell us a great deal about how she thinks about the various flirtations. What is interesting is that she doesn't judge -- but she knows what is at stake and worries a bit. There is another related sequence in which we see the young man on the bus looking back and forth at a young woman -- what struck me was the distinct possibility that the young woman had been filmed spontaneously on the bus, documentary style, and that her apparently "flirtatious" reactions were responses to being filmed on a bus. There is a documentary/realist strand that runs throughout this film and all of Weerasethakul's work -- that may account for part of the freshness and vitality that appears. His work will never be mainstream and is not for all audiences but for those who delight in alternative approaches to telling stories and who long to feel something beyond the kind of numb excitement that comes from being on a roller coaster ride, there is definitely something here worth exploring.

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