At first, you can just about smell the jasmine wafting delicately off the screen in “Malila: The Farewell Flower,” a restrained, quietly sensuous study of gay desire, grief and spirituality from Thai writer-director Anucha Boonyawatana. A little more accessible than her 2015 debut feature “The Blue Hour,” but building on its enigmatic, opalescent queerness, Boonyawatana’s follow-up is meditative to a quite literal degree, braiding the emotions upturned by two men’s star-crossed romance with one of the lovers’ journey into Buddhist monkdom to increasingly sober effect. Already well-traveled on the festival circuit, where it’s been a particular staple in LGBT-oriented showcases, “Malila” is also Thailand’s submission for this year’s foreign-language Oscar; its blend of melodrama and Weerasethakul-evoking mysticism should continue to find appreciative audiences on VOD.
Though its gentle, lapping rhythms are contained in a trim 95-minute framework, Boonyawatana’s film demands patience of its audience in the early going, as the shape and stakes of its time-fractured narrative emerge gradually from its initial observations of cultural ritual and nature at rest. A seductive opening scene, shot in shimmery closeup, details the painstaking process of making bai sri — exquisite, ornately hand-crafted towers of intricately folded banana leaves and threaded flowers, the creation of which is meant to foster mental and spiritual strength. Yet as sensitive young bai sri artist Pich (Anuchyd Sapanphong) notes upfront, the jasmine blossoms he uses begin to wilt even before the spectacular structure is complete.
The symbolic resonance of this rueful observation soon becomes clear enough in a film dedicated to the simultaneous beauty and cruelty of impermanence: Pich, it turns out, is stricken with lung cancer, and has refused further chemotherapy to die at his own pace, with only herbal remedies to ease his suffering. This serene exit is given a slight jolt, however, by a chance reunion with his former lover Shane (Sukollawat Kanaros), who is already in a state of mourning following the death of his young daughter — which has in turn put paid to his marriage. As the men rekindle their relationship, the history of which is revealed in passing remarks and glances, both men must reconcile the pain of the present with unresolved burdens of the past: For Pich, his life is a bai sri to be completed before its crumbles altogether.
For Shane, with life still stretching formlessly ahead of him, this unexpected romantic encore (albeit destined for another, imminent heartbreak) spurs him into pursuing the holy life he has long been contemplating: After losing a child and a lover, he reasons, becoming a monk will help him understand and accept the fragile nature of existence. “Malila” is certainly unusual in its equally sympathetic articulation of gay love and religious calling, but Boonyawatana threads that needle with some grace, her hushed, sense-led visual storytelling treating one form of devotion with as much tender reverence as another.
The men’s love scenes, while not explicit, are quiveringly tactile, with the smallest act of intimacy (even a head laid on a clothed shoulder) shot and played with a fine awareness of silent sensual communication. As Shane’s Buddhist explorations delve further into the spiritual and literal wilderness, meanwhile, Boonyawatana’s bodily imagery turns surprisingly violent, to viscerally cathartic effect. Despite the early promise of all those gorgeous bai sri, the director and cinematographer Chaiyapruek Chalermpornpanich — painting in soft tones of skin and foliage — aim for something harder and earthier than the decorative yoga-retreat mysticism that westerners may associate with Buddhism. In “Malila,” even inner peace isn’t always pretty.