The story of a blossoming romance between a soldier and a country boy, crossed with a Thai folk legend about a shaman with shapeshifting abilities.
Love is the drug, a game for two and, in the otherworldly new Thai film ”Tropical Malady,” unabashedly strange. A fractured love story about the mystery and impossibility of desire, the film was directed by Apichatpong Weerasethakul, whose earlier feature ”Blissfully Yours” opened recently in New York. Perched between two worlds, two consciousnesses and two radically different storytelling traditions, this new feature, which will be screened today as part of the New York Film Festival, shows a young filmmaker pushing at the limits of cinematic narrative with grace and a certain amount of puckish willfulness.
Set in contemporary Thailand, ”Tropical Malady” opens with soldiers taking photographs of one another in a field. Shot in the loose, hand-held style of much contemporary documentary, the scene seems perfectly ordinary until you realize that there’s a dead body on the ground and the soldiers are actually snapping trophy shots. The full import of this tableau doesn’t become clear until much later when Mr. Weerasethakul returns us to a similar looking field (it may be the same one) as if to the scene of a crime. By then, the story’s two principal characters, the shy country boy Tong (Sakda Kaewbuadee) and a beautiful soldier named Keng (Banlop Lamnoi), will have been stricken by the tropical malady of the film’s title and fallen in love.
In May when ”Tropical Malady” had its premiere at the Cannes International Film Festival the critical consensus was that the movie was difficult to the point of inscrutability. But the story is, notwithstanding a surprising rupture midway through, nothing if not simple. Most of the first half of the film involves the tentative blossoming of Tong and Keng’s romance. In street scenes and country interludes, again shot in the intimate style of hand-held documentary, the men giggle and flirt, share confidences, meals, music (the Clash) and adventures. As the days slip by imperceptibly, they take Tong’s dog to a veterinarian’s office, play games in the dark and descend into an underground temple where a small Buddhist icon sits draped in twinkling lights, a tinny recording chirping out Christmas music. Love blooms, however chastely.
Mr. Weerasethakul, who lives in Thailand and studied painting at the Art Institute of Chicago, has an appreciation of the more humorous dislocations of globalization, like a thoroughly modern aerobics class in the middle of a dusty town. ”Tropical Malady” is filled with such minor disruptions (including a woman who talks about ghosts in one breath and ”Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” in the next), but the biggest disruption takes place when the storytelling shifts from realism to allegory.
Set in the deepest, darkest heart of the jungle, this part of the film finds Keng tracking a ghostly figure who periodically assumes the shape of a tiger. That the figure should turn out to be the soldier’s elusive lover, the object of his desire, should come as no surprise. Frankly, I was more taken aback by the talking baboon.
Manohla Dargis (The New York Times)