Tropical Malady (2004)
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We are told by an interjected 3d person narrator the story of a shaman who is a shape-shifter known to take different animal forms, who used to roam the forest playing tricks on people. One day a cunning hunter, did not fall into a trick and shot him, mid transformation from woman into tiger. The spirit of the shaman was then stuck as half tiger half man and eternally doomed to stalk the forest; tricking and devouring all in it's path.
Keng, is then on patrol in his section of the forest, exploring rumors from villagers, about some "thing" killing cattle and causing general havoc. Alone on patrol in the woods, he becomes plagued by strange sounds, a sense of dread, and images of a naked boy, a tiger, spectral animals, and a glowing phosphorescent tree (which looks as beautiful as those in Aranofsky's "The Fountain"...I have no idea how they got that effect, on their budget, but it's miraculous...).
This second half of the film, of course calls into question our understanding of Keng and Tong's prior relationship (if Tong ever existed at all.). While part one, is reminiscent of a modern quirky love story like "Chungking Express", the second half is like Terrance Mallick shooting a remake of "Predator". All sense of time and space, is swallowed by the jungle, and implicit politics of the first half are turned inside out in the second half; it is literally cat and mouse, with the possibility that the cat may want to be eaten by the mouse, or vice versa.
The second half is also marked by the inclusion of tribal art and cave paintings, depicting the story of the shaman and the soldier, with sub-titles accompanying them. To paraphrase a description by director Weerasethakul it's like "a silent film for the first people on earth". And together with the visual effects, confident cinematography, clever use of editing, music, and sound, and disarming performances, it becomes magical. "Tropical Malady" combines the most modern and ancient notions of fear and desire, and makes something "new" out of them.
This is Thailand's "Solaris", a story of the changing shapes and forms of want and need, of being deceived and allowing yourself to be deceived by them. It's slow pace, forces reflection on questions like what form or body comprises love, is it purely physical or something more, is it perhaps deception itself, a fools errand we invent to forget the savagery of the jungle around us, is it the need to devour or be devoured? There's a Scottish legend called Tam Lin (one of my favorites), long story short, a woman falls in love with a faerie, and discovers he used to be a man, but made a deal with the faeries to serve them if they spared his life, after an accident. Tam tells the women she can restore his humanity and claim him, if when the faeries pass on Halloween night, she will wrap her arms around him and not let go no matter what happens. She does this, and the faeries transform him into all manner of creature, some hot, some cold, some thorny, others slimy, some which bite and claw, etc, but she holds on throughout all his changes, til eventually she finds herself just cradling a man. And the faeries begrudgingly let her keep him, because she held on to what she loved, despite the way it changed with time.
The film opens with these lines, "All of us are by nature wild beasts, our duty as human beings is to become like trainers, who keep their animals in check. And even teach them to perform tasks alien to their bestiality"-Tom Nakajima "Tropical Malady", is a good deal more ambiguous, I suspect more predatory and reflective as well, than Tam Lin, and comes from the opposite side of the world, but like that story manages to peculiarly harmonize emotional sensitivity and mythic scope, into a coherent whole.
I wished I would have paid more attention to Weerasethakul "Mysterious Object At Noon" the first time I had the chance, he has a talent for experimenting with narrative and style that is missing in many films endlessly praised these days. The phrase I kept hearing from other reviews or the one I liked the best was "If Brokeback Mountain, was a mountain on the island from "Lost"...it's callous, with a smidgen of truth, but this is a much better movie than that. It is very slow moving though, the first hour will give you no hint of the second half (other than a few visual ones, look at the various statues in the backgrounds, etc), but for the bold and the patient, there is lush hypnotic reward to be had.
Tong is unsophisticated and appears uneasy in the relationship but never loses control, giving their friendship a charm and sweetness rarely depicted on screen, especially between members of the same sex. They go to a movie, participate in an exercise class, take a sick dog to a clinic, and visit an underground temple. Their relationship develops in simple gestures of affection. Keng gives Tong a Clash tape but later tells him that when he gave him the tape he forgot to give him his heart. He places his hand on Tong's knee but the boy turns it into a mischievous game of squishing his hand with his other leg rather than acknowledging its sensual implications. Keng asks Tong if he can lay in his lap and Tong says "no", then a minute later, he changes that to "no problem". A scene in which Keng mouths Tong's hand after he had urinated and Tong returns the favor with equal passion advances the sexual nature of their relationship but it is not consummated.
As Keng leaves for the country to resume his duties, the screen goes blank and we are transported into a land of myth and time in which a folk tale is being narrated in a jungle setting. Called A Spirit's Path, the mood suddenly changes to dark and foreboding. A narrator tells us that a shaman has transformed himself into a tiger and is terrorizing the countryside that Keng is under orders to protect. The soldier's mission is to subdue the tiger (Tong) and release the spirit of a white cow. The lovers are now the hunter and the hunted. Running through the jungle with tattoos all over his body, Tong is a naked man who can shape-shift into an animal at will. As Keng hunts his elusive prey, he begins to lose his grounding in the normal constructs of reality and the framing of the jungle scenes create an atmosphere of brooding surreal intensity.
Stripped of the pretense we call civilization, on the border between two worlds, Keng's life unfolds in a desperate vision, suggesting that we are the both the dreamer and that which is being dreamt. He talks to animals, sees ghosts, and receives advice from a baboon who tells him "The tiger trails you like a shadow. He is lonesome. Kill him to free him from his world, or let him devour you to enter his world." As the tiger perches on the branch of a tree staring at him, Keng knows that in order to save his life, he must be willing to sacrifice it. "I give you my spirit, my flesh, and my memories", he tells the tiger, and "Every drop of my blood sings our song A song of happiness. There do you hear it?" Beyond the shadow of illusion, Tropical Malady forces us to see in the dark. What begins with a wan smile ends in a fever of ecstasy.
The movie is split in two halves that both tell the same story - a love story between a soldier and a countryman - one filtered through reality, one through mythology: the city where every action follows a rational and logical thread, and the jungle where there's no rule other than learning to coexist with nature and all events and emotions are primary and raw. In the second part, the country boy becomes the incarnation of a shape-shifting shaman and follows the soldier in the shape of an extraordinary tiger, as to mirror his forceful appeal and the soldier's wild desire: what was a polite, romantic and almost naive love story becomes a supernatural tale where all schemes and disguises are erased and all that's left is pure instinct.
There are so many memorable moments (the theater sequence, the descent into the temple) but everything that happens in the second half speaks to you on a totally different level. Words are replaced by jungle noises, sounds become messengers of peace or impending danger - the soldier (Banlop Lomnoi, who's beyond awesome) has to choose whether to give in to desire or tame it, kill the tiger or let it kill him. The visual impact of this part is astonishing - the tiger appearing for the first time, the branches shaken by the wind, a tree lit up by fireflies: the beauty of the imagery is almost epic.
Seriously, the movie deserves to be watched because putting this into words is almost like betraying its spirit. Awesome, awesome experience all throughout.
"The tiger trails you like a shadow. His spirit is starving and lonesome. I see you are his prey and his companion."
The experimental creator of "Mysterious Object at Noon" is back with another abstract gem, "Tropical Malady." This time we have a 2-parter connected by common themes and metaphors, a la Wong Kar Wai's Chungking Express, equally casual but much slowly paced here. The first part of the film is set in everyday world. A gay soldier pursues a young country boy. The boy is most likely not gay, but he returns the attraction most of the time, probably because he is attracted to the soldier on another level (e.g. he is fascinated by the soldier's uniform). One day, while the soldier is flipping through the boy's photo album, suddenly the movie blacks out -- enter part 2, a story inspired by legends that parallels part 1, but from an alternative angle that makes it challenging to detect the patterns. Set in the dark tropical forest, the soldier relentlessly hunts a tiger ghost spirit for love, fear, or both (foreshadowed by a shooting computer game played by the boy who later appears as the tiger spirit). The tiger is fascinated by the soldier's sound device. The soldier is warned that he must either kill the tiger or be devoured by it.
Part 1 and part 2 are both about desire and pursuit, and essentially follow the same path. In both, the soldier makes great effort to pursue his passion, but it leads him nowhere. He is incompatible with the partner of his desire, so it cannot be satisfied in the case of a straight boy or a tiger. The soldier can be classified as greedy, and it will be his downfall. The 'fairytale-esque' romance in part 1 seems almost Utopian, but it's an illusion that cannot be sustained. In the end he will be consumed by his desires.
This is a powerful and challenging film with 2 segments, each providing a distinctive context to view the same patterns. With only 2 or 3 lines of dialogue in the second part of more than 65 minutes, it's a highly sensual and contemplative experience, where every drop of water, wind gently brushing the leaves, and sound of birds singing contributes to your senses. You can literally smell the mud in the fresh rainforest.
The photography is undeniably beautiful. The last shot of the film is sheer poetry that will take your breath away.
It's hard to tell about the story without spoil it. Watch it, no matter what.
I won't try and pretend to grasp all the mystical concepts writer/director Apichatpong Weerasethakul is batting around in this film. The quotes he provides for us, drawn from famous Thai folk tales, are of some help, but much of the theme of the film remains obscure and murky for Western minds not accustomed to thinking in such pantheistic terms of the world around us. Nevertheless, the film still connects with us Occidental types, possibly because it explores that universal belief all humans seem to share - undoubtedly implanted onto our DNA way back in our primeval days - of a so-called enchanted forest, a place where evil in a monstrous form may be lurking beneath the dark underbrush ready to jump out and devour us at any unguarded moment. It shows up in many of our fairy tales, of course, and, most recently, in films such as "The Blair Witch Project," "The Village," "The Two Towers" and "The Brothers Grimm" to name a few. Yet, "Tropical Malady" also brings a romantic tenor to the subject as it implies that the love between the two men has somehow moved into a more meaningful and primal stage, one bereft of the constricting and deadening rituals placed upon it by a civilized world (my suspicion is that is why the filmmakers chose to make this a love story between two men rather than one between a man and a woman, though, frankly, the Thai society we see doesn't seem to be particularly condemning or homophobic in its response to the lads).
Even if every single moment is not comprehensible to us, this is still a wonderful film to watch, primarily because Weerasethakul brings such a lyrical, impressionistic style to his direction. He fills literally every frame with fascinating details of the setting and landscape - be it the lush vegetation of an overgrown steamy rainforest or the neon-lit vibrancy of a crowded urban shopping mall. His soundtrack is also a major player in the film, particularly in the jungle scenes where the natural - and not so natural - sounds become an intricate part of the mood and drama.
And "mood" is definitely the operative word here, for "Tropical Malady" is far more a film of feelings and sensations than of conventional narrative. The lovely performances by Banlop Lomnoi and Sakda Kaewbaudee, as the two men drawn into this surrealistic drama, help to ground the film enough in reality so that we go along with it even when we don't always understand it. A feast for the eyes and ears, "Tropical Malady" is a hypnotic, spellbinding film that washes over you and carries you to a world singularly its own. Take the journey.
"Tropical Malady" has been promoted as a gay film, which in a way, it is, but basically it presents a mystery that is never solved, although we know that in this case, the soldier is so obsessed with his opponent that they end up respecting one another.
My only reservation with the film is the editing. It could have used a bit of cutting to make it more accessible. As a point of interest, films like this one tends to irritate viewers and one watches as how a theater empties out because people don't want to sit through any more. On the case of "Tropical Malady" no one walked out, which perhaps it's saying a lot for a film that can tax the viewer's patience.
The jungle scenes at night are magnificently executed and perhaps the director will have more success with his future undertakings as he shows a sure hand in his direction.
It's form is so effortless that it's difficult not to feel like you're not watching a movie at all -- or at least -- in it's ultimate experience is more kin to cinema at it's purest.
One does not need to understand television to view this work -- or pop culture or magazines -- it is so heartfelt, detailed and organic with the celluloid acting as a cipher for ghosts to wander, lost and found.
One can not replicate this kind of experience by discussing it's genre..and certainly script doctors would have mild heart attacks trying to replicate its beauty and substantial finality as a work of great cinema.
I have to confess that parts of it remain unclear. But that doesn't create any conflict whatsoever. On the contrary, it's precisely what adds passion to it. Existence is a mystery, or isn't it? On the other hand, the author delights in showing us with startling clarity those "insignificant" daily emotions that we are all familiar with, but that we might not actually understand.
The one redeeming factor for me was the opportunity for a realistic glimpse of rural Thailand, and some scenes were indeed beautifully photographed.
I am no stranger to experimental and non-narrative structures in film, but found myself fast-forwarding through much of this piece, especially the latter "folkloric" half.
Inscrutable and languidly paced do not always equal a soulful, moving film experience, and I can't help but wonder if some of the praise for this one comes from those willing to be blown away by anything impenetrably arty.
There really is not a lot to this film, not much happens per se, and it is left to the viewer to project one's own sensory or emotional illuminations onto the structure, what little there is. I was unable to make this leap, cold-hearted bastard that I am.
The underlying psycho-political message is more than a little disturbing, too. To the extent that the Tiger stands for Desire - the message is either kill the Desire or the Desire will consume/kill you.
And thus the portrayal of the soldier's desire is conflicting. While in the first half of the film he seems to know exactly who/what he wants - in the second half of the film he is lost & confused, frightened by his Desire.
And there were simply too many "throw away" scenes - such as going into the cave with the weird Sister - and going to the Mall with the weird Sisters - and "meaningful glances" exchanged by both the solider and the boy and young women along the way - all of which give you a taste of urban Thailand - but towards what end? And the interplay of countryside ("traditional") versus urban ("modern") Thailand is messy, too.
If traditional values teach that such Desire is a bestial trap - it's pretty hard to see the urban "jungle" as offering any particular alternative "escape" in this film.
The film basically consists of two distinguishable parts which both last about an hour. The first half takes place mainly in the city and the second half is mainly jungle. Now this may be a problem on my behalf, but I'm not really sure I completely understood the link between first half and the second half of the film. I see the metaphor of the traditional versus the original, and I quite like the idea, but filmwise the link betwoon both parts was messy and unclear, if there was a link at all.
The way I see it, the lack of much dialogue or other information to clear things up, and the presence of a lot of scenes of which I didn't really understand the relevance, didn't really help. Don't get me wrong, I kinda liked the slow pace of the story with some silent moments built in, and of course the beautiful imagery of the jungle. But I really think it was a little overdone here. There was a lot of dead wood on this tree, so to speak. By dead wood I mean the several scenes where things happen of which it was quite hard to understand the relevance to the central story line, and of course the several pretty long periods in the film where nothing really happens at all. Instead, some more 'structure' and some more elements to give the viewer a little more grip on the film in order to understand what the writer meant would have been more than welcome.
The first part: youthful cheeks and cheap cologne, the lull of a summer afternoon, prayer at an underground temple, urban nights blossoming with the promise from neon lights, heat, openness. A Wong Kar Wai done without the catchy melancholia and filmed in long sweeps and relaxed breathing. The plot is about a young patrolman who pursues the affections of an unassuming country boy. They touch. He mysteriously vanishes into the night.
The second part: memories of that desire folded back into the jungle, a jungle stretching inland into the soul. Portents and divinations paving way for a wrestle with some internal darkness. The dreamlike pursuit to apprehend loss leads to a monkey that guides, a tree luminous with life. He lets go the ineffable as the only means of coming back into the light.
Between these we have a photograph that permits passage inside, a folk legend about a shapeshifting shaman that provides the ritual of primal images to transform to. He transforms collective mind into personal vision that enables himself to be transformed.
It is captivating stuff overall beckoning from the gaps between restless sleep and lucid dreaming, though not quite essential in the long run. From our end, we need to be the blank space that will allow the emptiness to ring through. We need to be the hollow shaft of the bamboo flute that will accommodate music. And ears that harken for the jungle night as it plays itself. You could spend a lifetime trying to arrange logically, but the only way it can have power is to absorb now, in a way that purifies. Recommended.
The pace in the two halves (films?) was entirely different. As were the people. Everyone was a "slacker" at the start and the solders were driven in the second.
However, I liked the two sisters who befriended the two young men, gave them soda and offered pot. I'd like a movie about them! Didn't see them at the mall.