Saturday, June 12, 2010

Tropical Malady (2004)

Director: Apichatpong Weerasethakul
Country: Thailand

I recently took it upon myself to seek out Apichatpong Weerasethakul's highly celebrated Tropical Malady, motivated by his Palme d'Or win in Cannes for his latest film Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives and the fond memories I had of seeing his Syndromes and a Century at the TIFF Cinematheque this past January. Like that film, Tropical Malady made it onto a lot of critics' lists of best films of the decade - and I can certainly see why.

Like Syndromes, Tropical Malady is divided into two very different parts, but while the former "reboots" its narrative, the latter could be seen as one continuous narrative journey for Keng (Banlop Lomnoi), its central protagonist. Keng is a soldier who meets a young man named Tong (Sakda Kaewbuadee) and soon forges a close bond with him. The film's first portion is set within the safe haven of civilization, dwelling in the Thai countryside and a busier city setting. When not amidst the peaceful outdoor settings of the village, the film ventures into distinctly urban locations flooded with florescent light, including a sterile veterinary clinic, an internet cafe and an eye-poppingly colorful karaoke bar. The slow-burning love story between the two men is portrayed in such a way that its homoerotic situation is not overly stressed. Instead, in a universal fashion, it simply portrays two people expressing affection for one another.

The second part, entitled A Spirit's Path, offers a significant departure from the first and almost feels like its own separate film. Onscreen text tells the folk tale of a shaman with the power to turn himself into a tiger. Having changed from his casual short-sleeved shirts to his camouflaged uniform, Keng pursues a tiger that is killing villagers' animals, putting up with the heat and blood-sucking leeches while making puzzling discoveries, including tracks that change from those of a man to those of the beast. One possibility is that Tong is the very shape-shifting tiger that Keng seeks. Barely any dialogue is spoken or music played, allowing Apichatpong to heighten the purely sensory experience of the jungle through the sounds of birds, insects and other wildlife and a spellbinding array of images.

In the programme guide for the Cinematheque's Best of the Decade series, Apichatpong's work is accurately described as a cinema of generosity, invested with a joyous desire to share moments pleasing and wonderful to behold. This idea is solidly reinforced in Tropical Malady, which is chock full of memorable sights and sounds. The first part alone features workers at an ice-making plant, gorgeous sun-drenched landscapes, warm communal gatherings in the nocturnal hours, an excursion to a cave, an outdoor mass aerobics class and the delightful karaoke scene. The second half contains elements that are just as stimulating, but of a completely different order. So mystifying and strange are they that it would be a crime to reveal them here in mere, crude words.

Like few other films, Tropical Malady forges a unique connection between it and the viewer, taking him/her on a mysterious, unpredictable journey of discovery ripe with pleasures. Seductive and beautiful, it is all but guaranteed to provide a different experience for each person who watches it, and a world apart from any other film you will watch this summer. If you're looking for something fresh, challenging and rewarding, something to truly lose yourself in, then seek out Tropical Malady first chance you get.

Below, I've included the trailers for Tropical Malady, Syndromes and a Century and Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives.

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