Saturday 15 November 2008

Tropical Malady (2004)

Director: Apichatpong Weerasethakul
Star: Banlop Lomnoi and Sakda Kaewbuadee

As I delve deeper into Asian film I keep finding new surprises. I'm reasonably new to Thai cinema but I've already found dark comedy and quirky drama from Pen-ek Ratanaruang, decent horror featuring Achita Sikamana and powerful martial arts with Tony Jaa, along with the Thai work of Hong Kong director Oxide Pang Chun, one of the Pang Brothers. Here's something different again, an experimental film that works very hard to avoid easy definition, courtesy of writer/director Apichatpong Weerasethakul.

It's really two films in one, two separate stories that have much in common but which are yet very different. They follow the same general theme, that of seeking rather than finding, but are are told in utterly different ways. The first is a story set in the real world, the second in a world of spirituality. The first is a sound film with dialogue, the second full of sound but where the rare dialogue is primarily the subtitled speech of monkeys. The first has a cast, the second almost entirely only two actors. These two appear in both, but only one as the same character. Both halves are distinctive and uncompromising in their approach, somehow magnetic but nigh on impenetrable.

The first is a sort of gay love story. The two lead characters are Keng and Tong, played by Banlop Lomnoi and Sakda Kaewbuadee respectively, and we aren't really told much about them other than what we fathom for ourselves. Keng is a gay soldier working on the forest patrol and he pursues Tong, who works at an ice plant in the countryside. To suggest that this relationship is subtle really isn't sufficient: while there's always the hint of a gay subtext, it takes half an hour for it to actually state itself. Even then it's hardly what you'd expect and it's never truly fulfilled. The impression we have is that Tong isn't really gay at all, merely attracted to Keng in some other way that is misconstrued by us as well as Keng.
There's no plot here, no storyline, no explanations. We literally just hang out with these two characters and gradually come to an understanding of who they are, or who we think they are. We watch people drive, go to the mall, wake up, watch a movie, visit a temple, talk with a couple of elderly sisters. Unless you're really paying attention, you'd think that there was nothing going on at all, and I'm still not totally convinced that that's not the case. I do believe that it was very deliberately done though: while some of this is very carefully shot, there's little that really stands out. It isn't a collection of set pieces, more a collection of snapshots.

And then the first half ends in a truly unexpected and abrupt manner. As Keng sits on his bed looking at snapshots of the boy he's fallen for, the film literally burns up and goes black. Ten seconds later (I went back and counted), we're introduced to part two, which is woven around a tale of a powerful Khmer shaman who could turn into various creatures. Shot as a tiger, his spirit is now irrevocably trapped in the tiger spirit and he haunts the forest. Our soldier, presumably still Keng, ventures into the forest apparently to find a missing villager or some such, but who finds instead a naked ghost, covered in tribal tattoos and ritual scarring, and the tiger itself.

This half of the film has even less happening than the first half, but it's even more magnetic. The forest is evoked magnificently and there's some truly magnetic imagery going on: the tree coated in fireflies, the appearance of the tiger in the clearing. Even the infrequent use of title cards like 'the ghost is fascinated by the soldier's mysterious sound device' can only add to the tone of this segment. I can't claim to understand everything that's going on here, but after nearly giving up on Tropical Malady entirely after twenty or thirty minutes, I found that the more I watched, the more I had to keep watching. It's as an entirety that it has most impact and it's going to resonate.

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