Asian Film Bucket List: Tropical Malady 2004

A film split into two halves, each with little connection to the other, Tropical Malady is definitely a frustrating watch. But it’s only when you stop trying to rationalise it that you can finally take something from it.

Tropical Malady begins with a group of Thai soldiers posing with a corpse they find in a field near a jungle. The soldiers leave after their macabre photo is taken. A psychedelic song starts to play as a nude figure makes its way across the now empty field. The song is a motif, repeated again at other points, and the scene is just one of the film’s many ambiguities.

One of the soldiers, Keng (Banlop Lomnoi), stays overnight at a local farm. Keng falls for the farmer’s son Tong (Sakda Kaewbuadee) and attempts to woo him. Apichatpong Weerasethakul skilfully depicts the development of their relationship with healthy doses of humour and honesty, from Keng teaching the inept Tong how to drive a truck to their conversations sheltering from rain under a veranda. The rapport between the men is much like the men themselves-simple and playful.

But Apichatpong Weerasethakul also hones in on the complexity of sexual desire and the tensions therein. One scene shows the couple at a movie theatre in the garish light of the screen. Keng tries to make a move only to find his hand trapped beneath Tong’s arm. In a later scene, Tong licks Keng’s hands in an almost feral sexual display but laughs it off straight after, leaving Keng wanting more.

It’s then that Apichatpong Weerasethakul veers suddenly from his romantic premise to another storyline entirely. A village has been plagued with mysterious deaths of locals and livestock. A soldier who may or may not be Keng (also portrayed by Lomnoi) tries to track the culprit. He begins to explore the jungle by following what look like tiger prints.

The second half of the movie is a confusing blend of everything surreal and supernatural, featuring shamanism, shapeshifting and talking baboons. Every now and then a line of caption appears to shed some light on the utterly weird goings on.

The appearance of the naked figure at the film’s opening finally begins to make some sense, even as everything else spirals out of coherence. And while you may feel disoriented by the end of it, Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s unique juxtaposition of love, sexuality and mysticism is definitely worth a shot.

Verdict: This may not be the best movie for a night in with housemates, but if you want a flick that will have you thinking about it for days after then Tropical Malady is the way to go.

Ayisha Sharma

Image courtesy of ALTSCREEN.COM

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