If you’re looking for explanations or answers to the mysteries of this beguiling film, the original Thai title might be a clue: Sud pralud. You can hear this spoken in the closing moments of each half of Tropical Malady (2004), with subtitles translating it as something like “monster” or “creature” or “strange beast”. Everything in this film could be a clue, but the “social-realist magic-realist” 1 cinema of Apichatpong Weerasethakul — eight feature films and countless shorts — is open to myriad interpretations to an almost unparalleled extent. His films are not intended to be solved — even in his native Thailand, audiences have struggled (though rural viewers less so). 2 Weerasethakul’s focus is often on the subconscious, the mythical, the unspoken truths of people, of modern life, of nature, and of the spiritual realm. Tropical Malady’s bifurcated structure is additionally confounding. In the first half alone, there is social realism alongside romantic comedy, city alongside jungle, love alongside death, artful match-cuts alongside blunt documentary-style transitions. It is an enjoyably elusive film which comes to an abrupt end halfway through then begins anew. With its jungle (and jungle-adjacent) setting and emotional ambiguity, Weerasethakul has referred to Tropical Malady as “the evil twin of Blissfully Yours.” 3
Opening with handheld vérité footage of soldiers posing with a dead body they’ve found, the first half of the film concerns itself loosely with soldier Keng’s confident romantic pursuit of Tong, a quiet and guileless youth. Keng is being billeted with Tong’s family in the countryside for reasons unexplained, yet much of their semi-improvised story takes place in the city as the two men become better acquainted over the days, weeks, and months. Calling it a story, however, is misleading — many of the scenes, even extended sequences (like an excursion to the underground temple, or the sickness of Tong’s pet dog, or Tong’s attempts to find employment posing as a soldier), have little to do with the supposedly central love story. This love story itself — somewhat resembling Call Me By Your Name (Luca Guadagnino, 2017) in its broadest outline — is extremely nebulous, even ambivalent, but an audience used to traditional dramatic structures can easily assume that the lovers are headed for heartbreak: perhaps the worldly Keng will seduce and abandon poor Tong. Of course, this does not happen. It’s hard to explain what does happen — which is, of course, the intention. According to Weerasethakul, “I wanted the first half to seem unrealistic, like a memory of something, so that when you leave the theatre you question what was real and what wasn’t.” 4 Despite the over-all neorealism of the film’s first half, it does seem to follow a kind of dream logic.
Weerasethakul has described the break in the middle of Tropical Malady as a “mirror … that reflects both ways,” 5 but it is not as neatly delineated as that. Prior to this mid-point fade out, the film reaches its apotheosis with a midnight flirtation (of sorts) on the side of a country road. The two men communicate wordlessly. The sniffing of a hand becomes the licking of a hand, and then — unexpectedly — it is Tong who abandons Keng, even laughing at his would-be seducer, then walks away into the night. Just as unexpectedly, the jilted Keng smiles, blissful, rejuvenated, riding back to the city, alone on his motorbike, as a pop song plays loudly… Suddenly, though, it’s the next morning. Keng wakes up alone in the country home of Tong’s family. He appears confused and there is a sense he may have been dreaming up the film’s first half. Voices outside the window discuss a “strange beast” in the jungle nearby, but then the film fades to black. Whatever your reading of the first hour — however sketchy, elaborate, or dead certain — it is impossible to anticipate this blackout and reset of the whole film, and hard to square what came before with what comes next: the jungle, the search, the strange beast itself.
The remainder of the film is free of dialogue, but never silent. Keng, now alone in the jungle and lost – a hunter becoming the prey – is practically enveloped by the singing of insects, birds, wind in the trees, and otherworldly electronic chatter. It feels like a new film entirely. It even has its own titles sequence, though the cast remains unchanged (and the character of Keng is central to both). Unlike the first half, the aesthetic here is more homogeneous and consistent tonally, texturally, and narratively. It is not, however, any easier to analyse. Weerasethakul describes it thus: “Emotions are revealed by the jungle; it becomes a kind of mindscape.” 6 The introduction of disembodied poetic voices toward the end of the film only raises more questions — as does the final scene of a telepathic tiger seducing the captive Keng. The second half is a beautiful film, but in what sense does it “reflect” the first half?
What is Tropical Malady really about? Is it a love story played out on two levels of cinematic storytelling? Is it — as Nathan Senn has noted previously in Senses of Cinema — an exploration of “the dialectical symbiosis between human’s relationship with nature and the fissure caused by the introduction of Western social structures”? 7 Indeed, while the second half of Tropical Malady is based on local folk legends, the first half is inspired by Atsushi Nakajima’s short story “Tiger-Poet” which concerns “the agony of literacy and the tragedy of discordance.” 8 That is something else the film might “really” be, a combined adaptation of two very different fictional works, one Japanese-and-literary, the other Thai-and-oral. Tropical Malady is genuinely all of these things, and more. Weerasethakul has said, “I always say a film should have a personality. And like a person, if he or she is very popular, I would feel very suspicious.” 9
Does this film have a personality? Is it, like Weerasethakul’s earlier film Sud sanaeha (Blissfully Yours, 2002), a personification of its most introverted character — in this case, the initially shy and gawky adolescent Tong? Perhaps the film’s hidden depths and distractions represent Tong’s own, as superficially perceived (in the first hour) and moodily re-imagined (in the second) by a bewildered Keng. With Tong’s mid-film disappearance, Keng is forced to construct his own exoticised and dangerous version of the youth, as well as come to terms with his own doomed romantic pursuit. The strange beast of the (original) title might refer to several things: to the unseen jungle predator, to the introvert with unseen depths, and also to the very film you are watching. If the tiger is Tong, and Tong is the film — perhaps Keng is the audience…
Tropical Malady / Sud pralad (2004 Thailand/France/Germany/Italy 118 mins)
Prod Co: Anna Sanders Films/Backup Films/Downtown Pictures/Kick the Machine/TIFA/Thoke Moebius Film Company Prod: Charles de Meaux, Alex Moebius Dir: Apichatpong Weerasethakul Scr: Apichatpong Weerasethakul Phot: Jarin Pengpanitch, Vichit Tanapanitch, Jean-Louis Vialard Ed: Lee Chatametikool, Jacopo Quadri Prod Des: Akekarat Homloar
Cast: Banlop Lomnoi, Sakda Kaewbuadee, Huai Dessom, Sirivech Jareonchon, Udom Promma
- Jessica Kiang, “Review: Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s ‘Cemetery Of Splendour’ Demands To Be Seen In A Cinema,” IndieWire, 1 March 2016 ↩
- Benedict Anderson, “The Strange Story of a Strange Beast: Receptions in Thailand of Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Tropical Malady” in Apichatpong Weerasethakul, James Quandt ed. (Vienna: Filmmuseum Sinema Publikationen: 2009) ↩
- James Quandt, “Exquisite Corpus: The Films of Apichatpong Weerasethakul”, Artforum Vol.43 No.9, May 2005 ↩
- ibid ↩
- ibid ↩
- ibid ↩
- Nathan Senn, “Great Directors; Weerasethakul, Apichatpong”, Senses of Cinema, Issue 88, October 2018 ↩
- Rie Kido Askew, “A literate tiger: ‘Sangetsuki’ (Tiger-Poet) and the tragedy of discordance”, Japanese Studies Volume 25 Issue 2 (2005) ↩
- Steve Rose, “‘You don’t have to understand everything’: Apichatpong Weerasethakul”, The Guardian, 12 November 2010 ↩