To Halve and to Hold


World cinema’s premier maker of mysterious objects, Apichatpong Weerasethakul is on a one-man mission to change the way we watch movies. Rich and strange, postmodern and prehistoric, his films foster an experience of serene bewilderment and—for the willing viewer—euphoric surrender. They are suffused with a sense of wide-open possibility that sometimes explodes into epiphany—as in 2002’s sensual pastoral Blissfully Yours, which, a third of the way through, hits the reset button by way of a long-delayed credit roll. Tropical Malady—the Thai director’s fourth feature, winner of a Jury Prize at Cannes last year—boasts an even more severe disjunction. Instructively titled,
Malady is split down the middle between lovesick daydream and malarial delirium. An idyllic first half, which recounts in fleeting fragments the intensifying attraction between handsome soldier Keng and bashful farm boy Tong, gives way to a nocturnal folk tale that likewise traces an anatomy of desire, but this time with the soldier amid an unearthly menagerie of tiger spirits, phantom cattle, and an aphorism-dispensing baboon.

How do the two halves connect? Which one is real—or realer? Are these pertinent questions? On the festival circuit, Tropical Malady‘s mid-movie shape-shift was perceived as something of a conceptual prank (the mass confusion at last fall’s NYFF screening was amusingly palpable). Still, lulling and pleasurably levitated as it may be, the first section is hardlystraightforward or even explicable—right from the uneasy opening scene, in which an army troop cheerfully poses for photos with a dead body.

Incidental mysteries pile up. Some are casually explained (why Tong, the civilian, sometimes dresses in military uniform), but most linger as gentle bafflements (the swan, the naked guy). Like Blissfully Yours and Apichatpong’s first feature, the exquisite-corpse road movie Mysterious Object at Noon (2000), Tropical Malady
promotes new ways of seeing. These films, at once rapt and dislocated, have the flavor of hallucinated documentary. They compel the viewer to look anew at the ordinary, to modulate their passive gaze into a patient, quizzical scrutiny. And what’s more, Tropical Malady is a film that looks back at you. The characters have a habit of staring into the camera—a gesture that usually signifies complicity, though the effect is vaguely discomfiting here, since we’re not sure what we’re complicit in. Malady Diary, a making-of doc that I saw at this year’s Bangkok Film Festival (Strand should nab it for the
Tropical DVD), sheds some light on the methodology behind the madness: Apichatpong tells his nonpro leads, Banlop Lomnoi and Sakda Kaewbuadee, to “act as if you’re in a movie.”

J. Hoberman’s description of Blissfully Yours—”unconscionably happy”—is no less apt here. Part one of Tropical Malady plays almost like a parodic affirmation of Thailand’s tourist-board image as the “land of smiles.” Everyone radiates faintly concussed grins, and the mood-enhanced vibe is both infectious and a little troubling—one irrationally blinding smile in a men’s bathroom just about stops the film dead in its tracks. Keng and Tong’s romance may be coy and tentative, but I can’t think of another movie that depicts a same-sex relationship with such lovely matter-of-factness—the traveling shot of the boys on a motorbike is pure joy (Apichatpong’s characters seem happiest when in motion). They share an easy intimacy that grows increasingly erotic—entwining limbs in a movie theater, and in a startling scene that prefigures the imminent reversion to the animal state, submitting a possibly urine-stained hand to a taste test.

But before getting to coitus, Tropical Malady enacts its radical interruptus. The film abruptly halts, fades to black, and is reborn—with a fresh title, A Spirit’s Path—as a wordless, primordial cat-and-mouse dance/mating ritual between hunter and hunted, complete with intertitles and cave drawings. Keng (or is it still him?) enters the jungle in search of an unspecified livestock-killing creature, only to confront a tiger ghost that on occasion appears as a face-painted, body-tattooed Tong.

If Tropical Malady‘s first half is a sunny utopia clouded by intimations of disquiet (like the detour to an underground temple), the second is about getting used—or giving in—to the unbearable night. (The director told James Quandt in an Artforum interview: “The break in the middle of the film is a mirror in the center that reflects both ways.”) The jungle is infinitely vast and dark, home to restless spirits and elaborately gnarled trees that emit ominous burbling noises; the rustling, chirping, buzzing cacophony suggests a demented white-noise machine. Like fearful, trembling Keng, the viewer is often stranded in blackness (and when your eyes adjust, what you see can be a shock).

The rupture transmigrates the narrative into a mystical realm, but it’s unclear if Keng and Tong have been banished or elevated to this plane of existence. Was their love too intense for the material world? Does the fulfillment of animal hungers require the cover of darkness? The film’s mysteries are so cosmic that any attempt to ascribe allegory can seem puny. One offhand early scene may hold the key to the metaphysics. After a brief discussion about the persistence of memory through past and future lives, Keng (in one of the greatest lines in the history of courtship) tells Tong, “When I gave you the Clash tape I forgot to give you my heart. You can have it today.” He rubs his palm on his beloved’s back, as if massaging a piece of himself under the skin. This bifurcated film dramatizes what Roland Barthes in
A Lover’s Discourse called “the dream of total union.” The soldier, face to face with the pursuer that is also the object of desire, heeds the advice of the talking baboon: “Let him devour you and enter his world.” And as the lovers merge—in an act of consumption and communion and consummation—so too, finally, do the film’s divided halves.

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