hat would a Thai person without much exposure to Western culture think of a movie like Alain Renais' "L´Année dernière à Marienbad"? That's very much how I saw Tropical Malady, the Thai film by Apichatpong Weerasethakul that has just opened in the San Francisco Bay Area. After winning numerous awards, among them the Jury Award last year at Cannes, the film apparently has already gained cult status.
I usually avoid reading about movies before seeing them; I use the three-second method of "scanning" articles for a few words signaling to me that this might be a film I need to see. In the case of Tropical Malady, the words (in a preview by San Francisco Chronicle journalist Timothy Pfaff ) were "cult film from Thailand, Cannes Jury Award, Wagner, Proust, gay, the power of sexual desire and the inevitable loss of self." This was more than enough. I went to the opening performance... with all the wrong expectations.
Tropical Malady is the Americanized title for "Sud Pralad" which translates to "Strange Animal" or "Monster" and is, in the words of the director, "about hunting, the way we pursue one another – how we live." It begins with a few soldiers taking a group photo over an unidentified corpse. Carrying the wrapped-up cadaver to their camp, they flirt with their dispatch women on the transmitter. It turns out the soldiers are dispatched as forest guards. In their wake, a man is seen from afar in the same grassland at the edge of the jungle, wondering about naked and as if lost. At camp, at the end of the day, the wrapped corpse lies in a hammock and a woman cooking for the soldiers warns them about the strange noises the dead man will make in the course of the night as his body gets bloated. The soldiers laugh. Sitting around in the dark, telling ghost stories, some of them cast long, amorous glances at the spectator, i.e. at someone who is looking back at them.
Two of the men come into focus. The older one, Keng (Benlop Lomnoi), is a very handsome, attractive soldier; the other is Tong (Sakda Kaewbuadee), a more homely, sweet-natured young man who seems to live in the jungle village where the soldiers set up camp. Death is present from the beginning – and so is desire. The first half of the film shows a halting courtship between Keng and Tong in scenes of Thai city and village life. The men are seen at a street market, at Tong's temp job where he cuts down blocks of ice, riding past each other in different vehicles or together on Keng's scooter. We follow Keng to a public toilet where he seems to be a familiar visitor, or to a night bar where Tong joins an older molam chanteuse in a beautiful, romantic song. In terms of Western concepts, these scenes are as slow and random as everyday life would look even without the direction of a script and camera crew. For a while, I was wondering why I was sitting there, watching. But what made this highly understated story-telling bearable to my unaccustomed eyes was the strangeness of the story-telling style itself. I was caught by the puzzle that something had to be hidden in these apparently banal scenes that are cut in unexpected ways, shifting light and color, day and night suddenly and without any successive realism. "How we live" is sprung on us like jarring randomness and perhaps dangerous expectation that something is still to come. Surely, something has to happen.
It takes a long time to become apparent that Keng pursues the younger Tong who seems to have no pursuit. Tong comes across as a contented, simple "village boy" who goes with the flow and is always ready to laugh. Faced with Keng´s advances, he remains passive and ambivalent until, like a child, he gets happily caught in the game... for a moment. But there are ties between them. Tong likes to wear a soldier's attire in order to make a better impression in town, and he lets Keng teach him how to drive a car and help him with the task of writing. Little by little there is a progression in their discreet courtship from looking to a few gestures of physical tenderness, to mutual groping in a cinema, to exchanging a simple love note.
In an ominous scene, the two men visit an ancient temple cave, guided by a stranger, an older woman, who invites them to smoke grass, shows them her good-luck phallus, and tempts them to explore a tunnel to the sea – a dangerous passageway in utter darkness that seems to stand for an initiation into both eros and death. This time, Tong wants to go and Keng holds him back...
On their return to Heng's village, at night, the peak erotic scene takes place. Keng stops the scooter. Tong walks to the side of the road to relieve himself. When he turns back, Keng takes hold of Tong's hand and, against Tong's protest that he hasn't washed his hand, smells it amorously. Tong does not let on what feelings run through him, but he grabs Keng's hand in turn and starts licking and biting it. Then he simply walks away into the jungle night. Keng stays and stares after him for a long time. This highly charged erotic scene with its animal-sensuousness ends the first half of the film.
The second half is more mysterious and at the same time simpler than the first. It takes place almost entirely in the depth of the jungle, mostly at night. An old Thai ghost legend is being told in painted images and written text and is enacted by the two protagonists. Keng is the soldier/ hunter of the tale and Tong is the elusive prey – a jungle creature, by turns a naked, ritually painted native, a ghost, an animal spirit, a white buffalo and finally a majestic, mortally dangerous tiger. The hunter pursues his prey apparently for days – perhaps the same length of real time that Keng pursued Tong in the first part of the story. He begins to understand the language of animals, learning from a monkey that he, in fact, is the being stalked by the spirit. The monkey tells him, "You are his prey and his companion." He therefore has only two choices: Kill the demon and thus set him free (and lose him), or be eaten and become one with him. – The "monster", the "strange beast" in this archetypal parable of Eros and Thanatos seems to be the mortal danger of a man's desire for another man.
There is no accompanying music in the entire second half of the movie (an interesting lesson for Hollywood movie makers). The suspense is entirely created by masterful sound- and camera work, stillness, breathing, the rustle of leaves, the faint thump of stalking feet on the forest ground, the snarls of wild beasts, and long, haunting silence. As the pursuit deepens, the hunter shoots to no avail, as the spirit simply shifts shape and continues. But the hunter also changes shape: He enters ever more into the nature of the jungle and the hunt, becomes almost invisible among the patterns of leaves and vines, and starts resembling the wild man or beast he is after. The jungle itself turns more mysterious and alive with unreadable shapes and colors between night and dawn. A tree seems illuminated from within, the ghost-shadow of a white water buffalo wanders through the thicket, and suddenly one sees nothing any more – as if all the intense peering through darkness leads to unavoidable, unnerving blackouts.
There are several encounters between man and man, and at some point the camera follows the hunter from his back, as if someone is right behind him – or as if his own demon or obsession is at his heels. The pursuit finally leads to a sudden, shocking face to face between hunter and tiger, but the outcome remains a mystery. Who is the naked man wandering alone through the grassland at the edge of the jungle? Who is the man who died?
We are back at the beginning.
Reading up about the director, I learned that Weerasethakul is a 34-year-old Bangkok-based, US-trained director who is considered the major cinematic artist of Thailand. He likes to work with unschooled actors and obviously gets uncanny performances out of them. He has made other strange, dreamlike films. His first feature also shown in the West was "Mysterious Object at Noon," in 2000; the second, "Blissfully Yours", was shown in Cannes (and at the San Francisco Film Festival) in 2002. Both are described as plotless films in languid pacing where seemingly nothing happens and yet people get transformed in ways that become apparent only gradually, after having seen the movie. This description also fits for the more plot-driven Tropical Malady, which the director considers a sequel to "Blissfully Yours," stating that, in hindsight, his latest film is about "repressed and forgotten memories, and unfulfilled emotions."
To be sure, Wagner or Proust this ain't (one critic went so far as to seeing Tristan and Isolde in it!) But the spectator has ample time, ensnared in the jungle, to free-associate. Peter Weir´s early, powerful Australian movies came to my mind – "Picknick at Hanging Rock" where a group of young women disappears into nature, and "The Last Wave" with its aboriginal witchcraft theme. The theme of mutual stalking brought back another recent Asian film for me: the Hong Kong thriller "Infernal Affairs" that has two charismatic young actors changing sides from law enforcement to mafia and vice versa, targeting each other in a brilliant cat and mouse game. Whereas the homoerotic undertones in the latter movie are well hidden, in Tropical Malady the erotic charge is obvious and at times intense. How Weerasethakul does this without any onscreen sex might be another elegant lesson for his western colleagues. Timothy Pfaff interviewed Apichatpong Weerasethakul (who goes by the Thai nickname "Joe") for the Chronicle. Pfaff reports from Bangkok: "Telling the story with two fully masculine men, neither exhibiting a trace of gender confusion, took most Thai moviegoers out of their comfort zone."
In a French interview Weerasethakul was asked about the "gayitude" of his film and replied: "Thai society is very liberal in this aspect, but there is still an inner unease about being gay. This unease is what I am showing, and its acceptance somehow touches the supernatural. We must gain a better understanding of homosexuality. We need to liberate ourselves in order to understand and accept our natural feelings – and this holds true not just for Thailand."