Tropical Malady

Anyone familiar with the gorgeous, meandering work of Wong Kar-Wai (In the Mood for Love, 2046) should feel at home with the work of Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul. Intimate but sprawling, intentionally staged but natural in every sense of the word, Tropical Malady is a strange and beguiling beast of a movie, a romance of sorts that abruptly shifts gears into a surreal fable about a man who turns into a tiger. Put aside any notion of a conventional story; instead, let the film’s hazy imagery, jarring pop songs and rambling dialogue wash over you like a tonic.

The unprepared and unadventurous will no doubt mutter, “What the hell is going on?” It’s an expected response to a movie that offers everything but simple narrative explanations. The credit sequence consists of men and women shooting each other romantic gazes. Later, soldiers roam fields of tall grasses and morbidly pose for snapshots with stiff corpses they find along the way. Eventually, we follow two soldiers as they wander Thai cities and villages, watching movies together, talking and fostering a tender romance. “When I gave you that Clash tape, I forgot to give you my heart,” one says; it’s a half-sweet, half-funny line that sounds utterly preposterous out of context, but makes complete sense in the dreamy world of the film.

Most of the dialogue sounds as if Weerasethakul set up his camera and gave his actors free rein over what they might say: A random woman recounts an old Buddhist tale of greed; a young man wants to learn how to drive so he can be a delivery man. Scenes are interrupted by karaoke tunes, aerobic lessons and references to Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.

Other sequences seem to exist simply for their sheer beauty: a cloud of dust rising behind a truck on a dirt road, streetlights dotting the sky at night, workers carving ice at a factory. Through it all, there’s a recurring motif of death and violence, as when one of the lovers rides his motorcycle past a gang beating someone to a pulp on the street.

The second half of the film entails a not entirely unrelated Buddhist adventure that involves a soldier being hunted by a ghostly tiger, which appears to us as a naked, tattooed man prowling the jungle. Even the animals here get subtitles, which might suggest that Weerasethakul is exploring the brutality of man and beast, or the predatory nature of love and attraction, or whatever other meaning you want to divine.

Freud would have a field day with this stuff. Part of the fun of watching a movie like Tropical Malady is the ink-blot quality of it: Everyone will walk away with a different impression of what they’ve seen, and they’ll all be valid. What matters is the director’s confident, assertive control over the audience’s attention, something Weerasethakul proves in every beautifully composed shot. He may try the patience of some viewers, but then, the same could be said of Wong Kar-Wai, Luis Buñuel or Picasso, for that matter. It’s a testament to his talent that Weerasethkul can be mentioned in the same breath.


In Thai with English subtitles. Showing at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., 313-833-3237), Detroit, 7:30 p.m. Monday, Oct. 10.

Michael Hastings writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].