Tropical Malady (2004)

Director:  Apichatpong Weerasethakul
Cast:  Banlop LomnoiSakda KaewbuadeeHuai Dessom
Plot:  A romance between a soldier and a country boy, wrapped around a Thai folk-tale involving a shaman with shape-shifting abilities.

Genre:  Drama / Fantasy / Romance
Awards:  Won Jury Prize (Cannes).
Runtime:  118min
Rating:  M18 for some sexual references and nudity.

A Jury Prize winner at Cannes and one of the most original films to come out at that time, Tropical Malady is in true Apichatpong Weerasethakul style a bewildering and contemplative journey into the unknown.  The unknown here is the abstraction, the poetical and the sensorial.  The Los Angeles Times called it a “work of a visionary fabulist”, and I can’t agree more. 

Tropical Malady is hard to explain to the casual moviegoer except that it is a film of two distinct halves:  the first hour centers on a gay romance between a village boy and a soldier, while the second hour is almost bereft of dialogue, focusing on a soldier in a jungle and an accompanying myth of a shape-shifting shaman. 

But of course, Tropical Malady is much more than that.  It is a film about memory, time, folklore, religion, love, and modernity.  Perhaps it is even more cryptic than the director’s Palme d’Or-winning Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010), even as both films share a host of similarities best explained by seeing Weerasethakul as an auteur. 

Even among the auteurs of world cinema, he remains to be one of the most unique of visionaries, though not necessarily the most celebrated or most understood.  But truth be told, even though I find most of his films frustrating because of the lack of a narrative and the laborious pacing, they are fascinating and challenging works of art.

The cinematography is top-notch, but what is more impressive is the sound design.  And they both work together to create an experimental-esque and sensorial cinema unlike any other.  While the first half captures the rural and urban settings of Thailand with some loose structure as anchored by the relationship between the two guys, it is the second hour that calls to attention Weerasethakul’s strength as a visual and aural artist. 

Sounds of the jungle, and the damp and humid conditions are brought to life and to the viewer’s senses.  The film is also allowed to free itself from whatever restrictions imposed by conventional filmmaking, and as a result, it achieves a sort of indescribable and mysterious transcendence. 

I can’t say that I like what I see, but I appreciate what I see, because what I see I have not seen, and what I have seen is simply not seen in the annals of cinema.  On the same note, Weerasethakul’s films have to be felt through seeing, not in an emotional sense, but in a metaphysical and spiritual way.  I think this is what Weerasethakul’s mode of cinematic address is all about.  And this is what Tropical Malady is about.  If nothing else, it is cinema for the soul.    

Verdict:  Bewildering yet contemplative in true Apichatpong Weerasethakul style, this is a challenging work of art.  


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