As exceedingly strange as its predecessors “Mysterious Object at Noon” and cult fave “Blissfully Yours” but even more incomprehensible, “Tropical Malady” takes the viewer on a mysterious and sporadically fascinating trip into the darkness of the human heart and Thai legend, but only after an hour of a weakly structured story about two young men who are attracted to each other. Pic will find its admirers chiefly among those who appreciated director Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s earlier cinematic experiments. Outside fests, pic’s loosely connected scenes will sorely try the patience of most arthouse viewers.
Working in a boldly avant garde style, helmer wrestles with the mysteries of love and the underbelly of emotions. He is overly trusting, however, that the inconsequential events he films will build into something meaningful.
First half introduces the handsome young soldier Keng (Banlop Lomnoi), whose duties as a forest ranger take him into the jungle. He meets and falls for a country boy, Tong (Sakda Kaewbuadee), and starts hanging around his family’s house on the edge of the jungle. Apparently unconnected incidents occur, like Tong’s dog taking sick and the boys’ visit to an underground Buddhist temple. Their friendship develops almost to the point of intimacy, but Tong gracefully avoids the sexual encounter Keng presses for.
Mid-way through the film, when it becomes clear the narrative is not advancing, Weerasethakul inserts a break and starts off anew. A folk art drawing of a tiger and talk of a powerful shaman able to transform himself into animals switches the action from the natural to supernatural world. Cows and a villager have disappeared, and Keng, making his rounds, finds a paw print. All alone and trembling with fright, he enters the jungle on the trail of the monstrous beast, which is both a real tiger and a naked wildman who looks a lot like Tong. Nothing is spelled out, but viewers can make the connections they want with the earlier characters and their feelings for each other.
The last part of the film has a few marvelous moments, like a talking monkey who warns Keng that the tiger seeks him as prey and companion, and the ghost of a dead cow who leads him on. The director’s eye for composing shots, lit by a trio of cinematographers who capture his magical vision of nature, stands him in good stead, while Lomnoi’s perf as the brave ranger draws viewers into the film in a way the jumpy first part does not.
Weerasethakul, who has been making experimental films and videos since graduating from the Art Institute of Chicago, brings an interesting cross-cultural slant to his work. He retains some irritating affectations, however, in cute devices like listing the actors mid-film (when they’ve already been credited earlier), as he did in “Blissfully Yours.”