Review: Tropical Malady (2004)


Tropical Malady is the crossroads of Apichatpong’s filmography, the well from which everything after it sprung and the bay into which everything before it disembarked. We have oral storytelling like in Mysterious Object, we have the introduction of Uncle Boonmee, we have a bipartite structure that contains two completely different but subterraneously linked tales like in Syndromes and a Century, we have endless traveling scenes through interminable natural landscapes like in Blissfully Yours, and we have myth and folk tales like in most of the aforementioned. Tropical Malady is a reference point for fans of the director, a beautiful room inhabited by the ghosts of the man’s filmography, its two episodes like the lungs that breathe life into the rest of his oeuvre. But it’s also an incandescent miracle all of its own, with echoes we cannot recognize and voices that we barely hear.

The first half of the film is about two men falling in love. The second half is about a hunter stalked by a tiger spirit in the forest. Apichatpong builds from these skeletal plots to construct cathedrals of sight and sound. He begins with the two young men, one in army uniform, named Keng, and the other in civilian garbs, called Tong. They fall for each other across an intermediate space, a city on the edge of nature, a completely urbanized environment that, nevertheless, seems like a frontier location, the outlying greenery promising a refreshing escape from the bustle of cars and advertisements. The smitten pair rest on each other’s laps with a backdrop of luscious trees, then go back to the city and enjoy a romantic music concert. Their story is one of fluidity, transit, displacement. They inhabit an indeterminate zone, neither urban nor rural, where both areas don’t coexist geographically but biographically, that is, people can combine both spaces within the text of their lives.

Silent screams emerge from every poster, advertisement, and price tag. Keng is looking for a job and steps into a clothing store. He is choked and swamped by the hung multicolored garments he might sell in the near future. Out on the streets, vendors and pedestrians bump into his path, add chorus noise to his youthful romance. His daily wanders are suffused by human contact: a warm old lady who shares a moral tale about greed, the aged singer who croons her love songs, even the gym class in an open air public space, adding physical rhythm to the lockstep trudge of the urban day to day. Equally ugly and sublime, the city in Tropical Malady is a multifarious hub of infinite forking paths, humanity asserting its presence in voice and deed, every piece of cultural exchange a hidden message.

Suddenly, the film morphs. We fall into a forest that no longer borders a city. The forest is all there is, foliage and shrubbery and talking fauna. We hear no human voices. There is no dialogue, save for the agitated warning the hunter receives from an excited monkey: the tiger spirit is onto you and it will never let you go unless you kill it. Like an art-house version of The Predator, what follows is a series of aimless walks through the endless woods, the hunter gun in hand, soaking his skin in mud water like a Thai Arnold Schwarzenegger. At first, the tiger spirit appears in human form, as a deranged shaman with a fetish for electronics (especially “mysterious sound devices”, or walkie-talkies). But eventually, in the most striking image in the film, the spirit materializes into the animal itself, staring at the camera amidst the poetic dance of moontime shadows, with that horrible, terrifying, ethereal, even transcendental gaze that so obsessed William Blake and Jorge Luis Borges. The tiger burns into our memory, its infernal colors leaving an afterimage, like the lingering yellows recalled by an increasingly blind Borges in his poem “The gold of the tigers”.

This fearful animal, while still a human-shaped shaman, is played by the same actor who featured as Tong during the first half, while the hunter is obviously Keng. Like Syndromes and a Century, Tropical Malady only seems to split in unrelated halves. In truth, each part is a restatement and retelling of the other. When the film starts, Keng looks suggestively at the camera during a sustained shot. Near the end, Tong answers by doing the same, now in the form of a tiger, its features both savage and refined, tangible and indefatigable. Love as hunger and passionate possession: whereas the first half is all meek glances and sweet caresses, the second is more violent and desperate, and yet, where the consummation of love is staged, where the obsessed and mutual gazes of the lovers reach a sexual, spiritual, and physical climax. Elated first love becomes the knowing contemplation sustained between lovers, silence and locked eyes, the paralysis before the plunge, the losing oneself in another.

[notification type=”star”]90/100 - Tropical Malady is the crossroads of Apichatpong’s filmography, the well from which everything after it sprung and the bay into which everything before it disembarked.[/notification]


About Author

Buenos Aires Film Critic. I might look like a cinephile, sound like a cinephile, and watch films like a cinephile, but I'm not sure that I am, in fact, a cinephile. I like to think of myself as some sort of itinerant (and probably lost) traveler who has chosen film as his preferred medium of imaginative flight, and who has in turn chosen imaginative flight as his preferred method of thinking.