Tropical Malady is a good example of what I call the whatsit genre of films - the kind in which at the end you wonder, pointing at the screen - what was it that just happened there? I had wanted to see it for quite sometime but never got a chance until recently. Meanwhile Apichatpong Weerasethakul's (who goes by friendlier name "Joe") new film Syndromes and a Century has found a place on many a top-10 lists from the last year. (It came at number 4 in the indiewire list.) It is already high up on my to-watch list.
Coming back to Tropical Malady, it is actually very simple if you think only of the plot. The film is divided into two parts. The first part tells the story of a blossoming romance between two young boys. One of them is a soldier stationed in the Thai countryside and the other works in an ice factory in the nearby town. The two guys are very bashful so their courtship remains very chaste too, they mostly just hold hands and smile at each other. Just when you think it is getting too much, along comes a mutual declaration of love. They lick each other's fingers and then the young guy goes away and disappears in the darkness. Then something weird happens. The screen goes blank for may be more than a minute, at least long enough to make you think if something went wrong with the player or the projection system. After the blackout it seems like we are watching a new movie altogether about shamans, forests and shape-shifting beasts. The same soldier is now in the forest, alone in the dark hunting a tiger who may or may not be his lover in disguise. We also meet a ghost of a cow and monkey who dispenses aphorisms about memory and desire. Actually it doesn't talk. We just see it on the trees and hear the voice-over. Finally he comes face to face with the tiger itself and thinks about surrendering to it. It may sound comic as I describe it here but the film itself is dead serious. You just have to listen to what the monkey says or see the final confrontation with the tiger. There is something magical and deeply evocative in those scenes which is difficult to articulate in words.
What happens in the second half is not that difficult to explain, at least not at the lever of a general idea. Tropical Malady of the title is of course love itself - a malady which makes one see the world in a magical way. For someone in Love, specially when confronted with an absence of the loved one, the whole world becomes a collection of signs and symbols, ready to be deciphered and interpreted, in the hope that they will give away some proof of love. In the film Keng (the soldier in the forest) is looking for and interpreting the signs of his lover's presence - the footprints, the claw marks on the trees - in the hope of finding the object of his desire again which has become elusive. His lover meanwhile has been transformed in his own imagination, again under the influence of the same malady (Somewhat reminds me of the title of Bunuel's film That Obscure Object of Desire.) I don't have a copy of Roland Barthes' Lover's Discourse with me right now but many of the ideas and aphorisms in the book, specially about love and its relationship with semiotics, will help explain the film much better ("Signs are not proofs of love," one sentence that I remember from the book).
In short, a marvellous film. Actually a perfect date-movie for the thinking types. Just keep a copy of Lover's Discourse handy. A nice review by Dennis Lim in Village Voice, which mentions Barthes too, though in a different context.