Friday, 9 January 2009

Tropical Malady

Moments that stir the soul: The gold noon sun of the opening sequence; the body and the music; the camera brushing through the tall green grass as if presenting the perspective of another; the shape shifter that intrudes upon the scene and watches, silently, from the periphery; the figure that wanders naked into the empty frame; the song and the cinema; the moped ride that brings to mind the vacant drifting into night of Catherine Deneuve's 'Marie' in Pola X (1999); the underground shrine; the stories within stories; the questions of love, with its mysteries and conspiracies; the spirit of the animal returning to the forest; the lights in the trees; the eyes of the beast burning brightly in the dark.

These waning moments that bewitch us like that "strange creature" on the spirit's path, who beguiles us with its otherworldly presence; plays games with us, forces us to pursue it through the darkened forest until we're lost, like the trapper in the clearing, where the branches hang down like the talons of an out-stretched claw.

Tropical Malady directed by Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2004:

That Tropical Malady (Sud pralad, 2004) is defined by these moments is in no way a criticism. Its bare plot, which spins two seemingly separate stories with much room for individual interpretation, feels at times like a blank canvas. We project ourselves onto it by bringing our own interests and emotional perspectives; seeing a creation of love or revulsion, devotion or obsession, depending on our own individual personalities. As a result, the film remains vague, elusive even; challenging the audience to think themselves through the film, to ponder its great mysteries and construct the plot in hindsight from the similarities that are formed by both parts of the narrative.

In its construction, the film is characteristic of at least two other films from its director Apichatpong Weerasethakul - the earlier Blissfully Yours (Sud sanaeha, 2002) and the subsequent Syndromes and a Century (Sang satawă, 2006) - in which the narrative is built upon a series of differences and distinctions that form in the back of the spectator's mind during the act of viewing; only really making sense as we connect them back to one another as the credits begin to roll. It is only then, at the end of the film, that the pieces of the puzzle fall into place. Then, and only then, can we step back from it, squint out a meaning and make the required leap to connect both ends of the narrative together; to see these characters and their representations as either "different sides of the same story", or different stories that convey the same theme.

In the first half of the film we are introduced to the characters Keng (Banlop Lomnoi) and Tong (Sakda Kaewbuadee); two young men beginning a furtive relationship against a largely social realist backdrop of contemporary, rural Thailand. These scenes are captured by Weerasethakul in a distant, observational approach that makes great use of handheld close-ups, static-long-shots, cutaways and the natural landscape. This approach to technique gives the film a distinctive quality; off-kilter, almost surreal, but developed in a time and a place that is entirely tangible. Likewise, the relationship that is depicted here is incredibly well defined; recalling the more tender moments of Lai Yiu-fai (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai) and Ho Po-Wing (Leslie Cheung) from Wong Kar-wai's excellent film, Happy Together (Chūn guāng zhà xiè, 1997) as we witness these two characters, like close friends more than anything, bond over the lush, green panorama of the surrounding countryside, or the chaos of the city.

Happy Together directed by Wong Kar-wai, 1997:

Tropical Malady directed by Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2004:

These aspects are then perfectly contrasted by the second part of the film, in which an unnamed trapper, dressed in an army combat uniform and armed with a semi-automatic rifle, stalks a naked man through the forest. The man, who supposedly has the power to channel the spirit of a long-dead shaman, has been killing livestock and wreaking havoc throughout the adjacent towns and villages. The trapper eventually follows the man into a clearing within the woods - where he becomes hypnotised by the mad, glowing eyes of a tiger-like creature - leading to the film's climactic moment of thought-provoking transcendence.

Tropical Malady directed by Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2004:

In order to better understand the workings of Tropical Malady we must first look at the parallels between these two stories and the subtle similarities that lead us to form the ultimate distinctions between them. A question: in the first story, is it important that Keng is a soldier; the opening scene introducing him alongside a small platoon, photographing and posing with an unidentified dead body? This body, at first as jarring and confusing as the string of sequences that immediately follow and establish the relationship between our two main protagonists, will eventually develop into something of a far greater significance as the film approaches its final act. Likewise, is it also important that Keng is granted something of a more conventional introduction - establishing certain traits of his characters, his leisure activities and the symbol of death that will be further implied throughout - whilst the introduction to Tong (if we can even call it that) remains, in comparison, something far more provocative and unclear.

Glimpsed in a wavering long-shot and obscured by the rolling fields, Tong wanders naked into the scene, pausing, as if to highlight his imposed centrality within the film at this early stage of the narrative; adding a kind of context to that previous shot, which seemed to suggest the POV of some voyeuristic creature stalking stealthily, as Keng and his soldier friends make their way back to base.

Tropical Malady directed by Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2004:

Throughout the film, it is Tong that remains enigmatic; a seemingly simple villager who works at a factory cutting large blocks of ice, or alternatively, walks the town in Keng's uniform attempting (we can only assume) to experience the general monotony of his friend's everyday existence (?). He is a character that often seems pensive or removed; even during the idyllic sequences as the two characters sit and stare, watch the cabaret singer or fondle one-another in a fleapit cinema. To quote from the essay by Asian Cinema expert Tony Rayns that is featured in the accompanying booklet of the Second Run DVD release of the film, "there is a clear implication [in these short scenes] that there's more to Tong than meets the eye. Hidden depths? A dark side?" Of course, it is in these questions that the further implicit meaning behind the character and his intentions becomes more clearly defined, especially as the film approaches its mid-narrative split.

Tropical Malady directed by Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2004:

Here, the characters meet one last time by the side of the road, and there, under a flickering street light, embrace one another, passionately. Afterwards, Tong walks silently into the shadows as Keng rides his moped back home, quiet and content. In the next scene, Keng gazes at a selection of old photographs as an off-screen conversation alludes to a recent spate of animal killings. Someone (or something?) is torturing the livestock.

That Weerasethakul chooses to end the first part of the film with such a moment goes a long way to establishing a link between the two stories and the central contrast between his characters. In one sense, it creates the kind of peculiar similarity that eventually defines the film; similarities, not just between the two-act structure and the back and forth shift from a social-realist approach to one more befitting of the term magical realism, but in the design of the film; it's characters and contradictions. Even the title presents a kind of dual significance; the contrasts between the world "tropical" - with its connotations of escape; the warm summer sun and those endless afternoons that suspend us in time - and "malady", which establishes a darker, more serious thread of interpretation, suggesting sickness; the fear and the hopelessness still to come. It also suggests a more playful significance with the obvious pun of the title: a "tropical melody", recalling the song that is performed midway through the film in front of a gaudy-coloured paradise facade, rich in what Rayns calls "an evocation of half-forgotten Hollywood exotica".

Tropical Malady directed by Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2004:

However, once again, the question remains: can the film be seen as two individual stories, presented with their own credit-sequences, visuals styles and dramatic preoccupations, or is it a film of two halves converging in a single whole?

This leads us to the films' biggest question; the nature of the malady itself? Is the "malady" Tong's ability to embody the spirit of the shaman, causing him to transform from that enigmatic cipher into a kind of mythical predator, whose gaze holds the secrets of existence? Or is it in fact Keng's love for the "sud pralad" - the "monster" leading him into the forest - that defines the titular affliction at the heart of these two tales? If we choose the former, then the contrasts and similarities that are suggested by the composition of the two portions of the narrative can be dismissed as just that; ironic commentaries on the juxtaposition of a (largely) social-realist relationship-drama and a sort of Apocalypto (2006) style jungle-adventure. However, if we choose the latter interpretation, then the film takes on a variety of substantial readings and interpretations that can be found in looking at the two distinct segments and then tracing a line back through them.

A line - like the one on the wall of Lars von Trier's apartment in the head-scratching film-within-a-film meta-horror, Epidemic (1987) - that connects the two narrative territories; where one is a love story and the other a story of survival.

Epidemic directed by Lars von Trier, 1987:

Tropical Malady directed by Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2004:

It is in these contrasts and comparisons that we find the drama and the beauty in these situations, as the two stories are placed against one another, disconnect and yet (seemingly) connected, with the same two actors playing different characters who become representations of the other; one becoming the metaphor and the other the reality, though never with clarification. Whichever way we choose to interpret it, the film, as a whole, remains a tremendous experience; a drama centred on the very basic emotions of love and longing, fear and confusion, memory and reflection, and yet... a film unlike anything we've ever experienced.

An exasperating film, where each cut, each scene, each line of dialog is evocative of something. That almost "film as prose" approach to deconstruction, as one image leads into another image - words into words, ideas into ideas - all being traced back and forth from one story into the next, as the two lovers, the hunter and the hunted, become an extension of the same thing. Once again, the development here is in keeping with the general style of Weerasethakul's work; his interest in memories and moments and how the two sides of the story - divided and yet linked by deep emotions - come to create something of a recognisable whole.

It is the memory that defines the existence of the monster, not simply in the minds of the audience, but in the mind of the central character; as the creature is described by (of all things) a talking monkey, who communicates with the trapper and explains the intricacies of a situation that might be real or might be fantasy. The monkey says: "Let him devour you, and in turn, enter his world", as Weerasethakul's editing (both in and around these scenes) becomes more and more fragmented; suggesting the imagined scenarios of the trapper still lost in the tree line, rootless, into sleep.

Tropical Malady directed by Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2004:

Moments like these may at first seem confusing, apparently offering us no immediate sense of cohesion as we strain to find meaning in the scenes of endless roving; as the characters simply sit, watch, interact, envelope one another within a soft embrace and ponder the complexities of their existence. However, as the film edges ever nearer to that thought-provoking final scene - as the themes from both halves of the film become one, forcing us to realise how deeply the implications of these moments reach, how clearly they are defined by the director - we see a new story develop before our very eyes; spun from the connection of these moments and the emotional connection therein.

Beyond this kind of broad, cut and paste reading, it is difficult to really deconstruct or comprehend Tropical Malady on any kind of deeper, theoretical or even analytical level; with the contrast between the two strands of the narrative and the way we choose to look at them simply proving to be too personal, too arcane. The whole thing, like much of Weerasethakul's work becomes as enigmatic as the daubings on a Rothko canvas. We can see the dividing line, the point at which one colour blurs into the next, and yet the experience feels complete.

Apart from where one story ends and the other begins, Weerasethakul is able to draw us into his mystery and into the dynamics of this (these?) relationship(s); where the meeting place between Thai neo-realism and the adventure serials of the author Noi Inthanon is subverted and explored in order to create images of lasting greatness. Beyond that, we're lost in the flow, in the heat and the spring, the exotic adventure and mysterious movement between worlds; where the whole thing becomes steeped in a kind of fever dream-sense and unearthly atmosphere, defined by those moments that stir the soul and capture the imagination.