BANGKOK, THAILANDWhen Thai critic Kong Rithdee, writing in Film Comment, diagnosed the uncannily bifurcated narrative of Tropical Malady as a case of "Siamese (non)identical twins," he wasn't just cracking wise. The second of Kong's Bangkok neighbor Apichatpong Weerasethakul's films to win a prize at Cannes, Tropical Maladyin which an urban idyll of silly smiles and simmering passions morphs into a panicky fever dream about pphosphorescent flora and soul-devouring faunareminds us that even the most intimate of couples sometimes find inseparability less a blessing than a curse. Just ask Chang and Engor hum a few bars of "Love Will Tear Us Apart."
Apichatpong knows just how unsettled some audiences were by the narrative whoopsy daisy in his previous feature Blissfully Yours, where some 45 minutes in, the long-withheld credits began to roll. In Tropical Malady, a formal lurch of greater magnitude transpires, not because the director's redoubled his efforts to leave viewers behind but because he wants them to explore new ways to begin. "If you look at one part of the film on its own, then the whole becomes meaningless," the soft-spoken Apichatpong insisted, during a brief return home between premiering a new 30-minute short, Worldly Desires, commissioned by the Jeonju Film Festival in South Korea, and repairing to his family home in rural northeastern Thailand to work on his next script (a rumination about his parents tentatively titled Intimacy and Turbulence). "What I want audiences to ask themselves is, 'Which part of the movie is real or fantasy?' And finally to wonder just how much a part of reality folktales and memories might be."
One good place to start with Tropical Malady is to disregard an otherwise reliably astute critic's description of the first half as a Sundance-y gay romanceor indeed, the notion that the film's A side is any more reality based than its unsuitable-for-daytime-airplay side B. Despite the "Land of Smiles" nonchalance with which the affections between the leads appear to be received, the notion that same-sex romance is socially accepted throughout Thailand is as far from reality as a tree that emits electro-bleeps and staticky blorps. "Even though the first part is presented quite casually and sometimes in an almost documentary manner," Apichatpong explains, "if you sense that there's something not quite right about the people and the environment, you're probably right."
As suspicious of the enlightenments of modern life as he is of the supposed divide between this life and the next, Apichatpong remains less interested in how far we've come than in how much we've already refused to learn. The further Tropical Malady progresses, the deeper it retreats into aspects of the pastfrom the jungle adventures of Noi Inthanon ("the Thai Hemingway") to approximations of temple paintings. "That's the way people used to tell stories, on a temple wall," the director says, a bit wistfully. "Because a sacred space was the last place people thought would get demolished, it seemed like a cautious way to preserve memories. To put it simply, in the second half, as the character goes back to nature, it's as if he's going back to a time when there was no civilization, and so the film's style needed to change to something ancient too. That's why I used silent film techniques like intertitles and paintings to tell the story, since I'm sometimes quite old-fashioned. Really, I didn't think I was really making such a contemporary film here," Apichatpong whispers, just before his cell phone starts chirping. "SometimessometimesI feel like it's still a long, long time ago."
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