Like Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s other films, Tropical Malady is a mechanism to channel thoughts and feelings that are hard to express in words – which means that trying to write about it is at best reckless and at worst stupid. As mechanisms go, it’s beautiful and seductive, and has many working parts. But we shouldn’t forget that the name of Khun Apichatpong’s production company is “Kick the Machine”.
Let’s start with the mystery of the title – or rather the titles, since there are several. The main Thai title is Sud Pralad, which means “Strange Creature” or “Monster”. It could fit the kind of horror movie that the Thai film industry used to produce in bulk in its heyday; the revived Thai film industry of the last decade has brought the genre back, so there are plenty of ‘monsters’ on Thai screens these days. The main English title, at least when you first hear it, has a hint of kitsch. Who sang the original “Tropical Melody”? Was it Maria Montez? Carmen Miranda? Dorothy Lamour? Whoever it may have been, there’s a touch of Myra Breckinridge in Apichatpong’s punning evocation of half forgotten Hollywood exotica. On the other hand, “Malady” has a faintly sinister ring to it. A malady is something that demands a cure, and both of Apichatpong’s parents were doctors.
But Tropical Malady is two films in one, and the second film opens with its own title and main cast credits. The second Thai title is Winyan, which means “Spirit”; the English title given in the subtitles is A Spirit’s Path. From strange creatures to something less tangible. Does this imply a distinction between body and spirit, between real and surreal, or between physical and metaphysical? Well, yes, all of the above, not to mention a distinction between stories as told and stories as they resonate in the mind. Apichatpong has a very pronounced interest in dualities.