Tropical Malady is a sophisticated, loving, humane, yet haunting film that explores the relationship between two beings. Like his previous film, Blissfully Yours, Weerasethakul constructs Tropical Malady through the juxtaposition of two related halves. However, in this case, the relation between the halves isn’t as overt.
Heed my warning: this film will linger on in your mind for weeks!
The first story looks at the courtship between two young men: Tong, an ice factory worker, and Keng, a soldier. Keng leisurely pursues Tong in a series of cute and flattering engagements. Weerasethakul strings together a series of non linear moments in their lives creating a vivid image of their relationship developing. They are simply leisurely moments in time, spent in the beautiful northern forests of Thailand (close to where Weerasethakul grew up). Weerasethakul makes full use of the available surroundings, shooting amazing locations while using a variety of lenses to accentuate the natural beauty of the locations. The best example is a huge underground cave where its entrance is shot with an extremely wide angle, fully emphasising its depth. The result of the juxtaposition of these moments along with a keen eye for imagery is an engulfing mood of flirtatious joy… perhaps this is what it is like to be in love…
The second story looks at a forest ranger’s trip into the depths of the jungle on the trail of a mythical tiger. Here, Weerasethakul uses the same actors from the previous half, to play two entirely new characters; Keng plays the forest ranger and Tong plays the human form of the mythical beast. Character interaction, as before, is generally limited to these two, inviting viewers to make speculation about a correlation between this story and the first. However the answer to the question of which story elaborates the other is elusive.
Interestingly, the jungle plays an important role in this half. It’s an ominous and ethereal place where monkeys speak to you, and fire-flies beautifully illuminate surrounding trees creating abstract images of beauty. The jungle provides a mythical wonderland which makes this half of the film feel like a haunting fairy tale, narrated by an estranged lover. For a bit of useless trivia, it is the same jungle as filmed in Blissfully Yours, and it’s interesting to see that Weerasethakul uses many of the same stylistic traits in both films, for example the common use of a hand-held camera that voyeuristically follows behind characters.
There are a number of aspects that make Weerasethakul’s work intriguing. Most of all, it is his skill to evoke and manipulate mood. The film’s thin plot along with its segmented structure allows mood to move to the forefront of the film. Furthermore, the contrasting moods produced by the two stories are fully emphasized by Weerasethakul’s unusual film style; for example, the thirty second period of silent black that separates the two halves, which effectively cleanses the palate of any remnant feelings produced from the first story.
Making claim of any concrete meaning surrounding Tropical Malady is difficult (perhaps impossible). The viewers’ own influences and social experiences are central to the film’s digestion. The moods evoked by the characters are universal, and draw upon primal instincts that live uniquely within us all; whether you are straight, gay, man, woman or mythical tiger, interaction between living beings is something central to us all. This is where Weerasethakul forges his place in the world of cinema. It is the treatment of universal themes with an original stylistic approach that makes his films so absorbing. Undoubtedly, a film as definitive as Tropical Malady deserves a deeper analysis than can be given here, and indeed a director who can articulate mood so well into a filmic realisation is worthy of more praise.