Quick-Thoughts: Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Tropical Malady (2004)

Apichatpong Weerasethakul Marathon Part III of VI

“That’s static from my heart. It’s calling out to you… You’re hot and wild like a forest fire.”

Film by film “Joe” Apichatpong Weerasethakul sinks deeper into the roots of expressing reality through the mythic after a) letting his interviewees create it for him, and b) disguising the contrived with a physique that reads of pure anthropological sincerity, and now c) mingling them both with his own collection of folk lores and nature-orderly truism theories by literally dividing the two into the halves that make up Tropical Malady.

As frustrating as a movie this ambiguous has the potential to be, the end product ultimately circumvents such by means of the almost euphoric wonder it awakens from the commanding structure of its mutative storytelling. The prologue is the first dead giveaway that this is something on its way to being an arresting experience whether remotely comprehensible or not, presenting a perplexing scenario where an on-call flirtation between one of the soldiers and a lady occurs immediately after the discovery of a dead body for which the men mistreat as if it were their souvenir, then literally sucking us into the remainder of the world via a camera dolly and a dreamy alt track. In following, we are abruptly greeted by a naked, suspicious spirit roaming the same soil, and thus the film sets itself up with the subjects of each act: the front of romance and the hunt in it. 

The first half is essentially made up of a commercialistic portraiture of love, the usual dates and cuddling. The older lover seems to be embracive of who they are as probable partners and the other is obviously a newbie to this public expression of homosexuality, as if he’s still learning who he can be or, for that matter, really is; there’s a twinkle of coming of age to this, but the bottomline is their expression towards one another is shown to be intimate, complex, sometimes assertive and sometimes reassuring, even to points where they’ll gnaw at each other’s arms and hands in such a beautifully primal way that needs no explaining if you’ve ever too felt the urge for one-on-one embrace: “once I’ve devoured your soul, we are neither animal nor human.” 

The second half asks a lot from the viewer, to relocate entirely into fable, and a very docile one for that matter which lingers and lingers on a soldier being drained in the woods till he is mastered by its mysterious creature lurking about. There is no confirmation that this is a parallel of what we had just seen in the previous half, but it’s hard not to assume some connection between the two, thus opening the door for speculation. Is the legend of the shapeshifter an allegory for the savagery of its previous lovers, and the jungle-set headspace their exclusive source of ecstasy that they can bleed into (through familiar motions such as the “gnawing”) as part of their desire to bleed into each other? This hunt reads like an initiation for violence, and yet it feels as if it’s only coming from a place of love, but perhaps a greedy, predatory excursion of it.

Tropical Malady is certainly a hodgepodge of genres in these cases, and at that surprisingly seamless when it comes to stringing them together. It’s a one-of-a-kind movie that begs of you to look through and past everything on display in the language of your own imagination as its and maybe our own — is this the message? — reality. 

Verdict: A-

Apichatpong Weerasethakul Ranked

“Tropical Malady” is now available to stream on Kanopy.

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