Thai Gay Cinema: Tropical Malady by Apichatpong Weerasethakul (Gay Cinema)

Beguilingly mysterious, Tropical Malady depicts a fascinating trip into human desire and Thai legend in a narrative that’s so original and bizarre that it cannot be compared to any other film.

Winner of the Special Jury Prize at last year’s Cannes Fest and an official selection of the New York Film Fest, “Tropical Malady” is the lyrical film by the maverick Apichatpong Weerasethakul, a prominent director of the Thai New Wave.

“Tropical Malady” chronicles the mystical love between a young soldier and the country boy he seduces, soon to be disrupted by the boy’s sudden disappearance. Local legends claim that the boy was transformed into a mythic wild beast, and the soldier journeys alone into the heart of the Thai jungle in search of him.

The titles of Weerasethakul’s previous movies, “Mysterious Object at Noon” and “Blissfully Yours,” could also describe his new film, which is even more mysterious and blissful than its predecessors.

Weerasethakul’s films explore the shape-shifting Thai myths by shifting viewer’s expectations and creating in the process a new cinematic language. Premiering in competition in Cannes last year, the film divided critics sharply, and similar reaction should be expected when the film opens stateside.

Leaving Bangkok for the seemingly peaceful countryside, the film begins as a love story between a soldier and a young man from the country. But just when we’ve gotten comfortable with the tender account of two men falling for each other (including one startlingly erotic moment), the director launches into the realm of myth, in which human and animal join together in a fantasy-like union.

As formally audacious as it is visually stunning, this original work reminds us that when we are in love, we should expect to encounter the most unexpected events or creatures.

The first half depicts a young soldier Keng (Banlop Lomnoi), whose duties as a forest ranger take him into the jungle, where he meets a country boy, Tong (Sakda Kaewbuadee). He starts hanging around Tong’s family house in the jungle, and minor incidents occur, such as Tong’s dog getting sick, or the boys’ visit to an underground Buddhist temple. Their friendship develops, but Tong gracefully avoids Keng’s explicit sexual overtures.

Working in a bold style, the filmmaker wrestles with the mysteries of love and desire. The seemingly inconsequential incidents eventually build into something more meaningful, if not exactly coherent or comprehensible–from a more conventional perspective. The film’s loosely connected parts, and scenes within parts, will prove frustrating to those expecting a linear story.

Mid-way through the film, Weerasethakul inserts a break and starts off anew, with a folk drawing of a tiger. A powerful shaman, who’s able to transform himself into an animal, switches the action from the natural to the supernatural. When cows and villagers begin to disappear, Keng finds a paw print. Alone and scared, he enters the jungle on the trail of the monstrous beast, which are both a real tiger and a naked wild man (who looks like Tong).

Keng’s love for Tong borders on the unrequited. When Keng smells Tong’s hand after Tong urinates, he returns the erotic sentiment by 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.

Shy but clearly enamored, the two men go through the timeworn conventions of young love: a date at the movies, the thrill of the first touch. Informed by the countryside and Thai Buddhist culture, the film moves toward its romantic climax. Functioning both as a love story and a folk tale, “Tropical Malady” intersects eros with tradition, suggesting that the most profound romances are not sexual but spiritual.

Keng gives Tong a Clash tape but forgets to give him his heart, and when Keng attempts to transplant his love for Tong via a simple gesticulation of his arm, the transfusion of Keng’s romantic energy is ravishingly felt in the director’s enchanted compositions.

Weerasethakul’s metaphysical fascination with ordinary human gestures and ordinary objects colors Keng and Tong’s bittersweet courtship. Nothing is spelled out, but viewers can make the connections with the earlier characters and their feelings for each other. The director shows an eye for interesting compositions that capture his magical vision of nature.

“Tropical Malady” evokes an existential fiber between sexual desire and cultural mythos in Thailand’s pastoral jungle. The movie begins as a simple love story before turning into something more profound. Weerasethakul equates Keng and Tong’s love for one another to a twisted landscape of trees.

A mood piece, the film mirrors Keng’s pursuit of Tong in the first half of the film to Keng’s spiritual journey in the second. The film’s two parts can operate independently of one another. But there’s another way of interpreting the narrative. The first half anticipates the second, or the second half reshapes the more conventional first part as a primitive ritual. Both parts seem to tell the same story, albeit in different styles.

Delving into Thai myths that underscore Buddhist philosophies, the actors become stylized metaphors for the romantic pair of the earlier section: One, a man hunting a demon in the forest, the other the ghostly presence of the spirit world. Weerasethakul isn’t interested in his actors beyond their abilities as archetypes. The narrative is set against images of majestic jungles, overgrown meadows, and various literal and metaphorical animals.

Weerasethakulce brings an interesting cross-cultural slant to his work, though some viewers will be irritated by his cute device, like enlisting the actors’ names midway.

Defined by purposefully incomplete vision of magic, myth, and love, this demanding film requires viewers to fill in the gaps. Connections are there for the committed filmgoer, but they are not easily discovered; bringing together the disparate styles and stories is a challenging experience.

Trained as an architect, Weerasethakul studied film at the Chicago Art Institute. Addressing the hybridization of genre in his work, he says, “I am interested in the possibilities of involving both fact and fiction in one film, with each intersecting and supporting the other. His works are shaking the foundations of narrative film. His genre shifting includes documenting rural people making up stories to create a new fiction, or mixing the social conditions of immigrants with the allegory of primeval forests.

His three features have earned him global acclaim, “Blissfully Yours” received the Un Certain Regard Award at the 2002 Cannes Festival.

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