Friday, May 16, 2014

Tropical Malady Review

This is an essay I wrote on Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Tropical Malady, a movie I liked so much that this critical analysis sounds more like a laudatory review, by its end.

An Almost Fatal Spell of Tropical Malady

I prefer the films that put their audience to sleep in the theater. I think those films are kind enough to allow you a nice nap and not leave you disturbed when you leave the theater. Some films have made me doze off in the theater, but the same films have made me stay up at night, wake me up thinking about them in the morning, and keep on thinking about them for weeks. Those are the kinds of films I like.” — Abbas Kiarostami

I like – love – Kiarostami, so I agree with the sentiment behind this quote. I do not think it is a stretch to apply it to the work of Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul and his 2004 film Tropical Malady. Watching it late at night on a comfy loveseat, I cannot deny the soporific quality to a soldier’s wordless journey through a dreary jungle, where rain falls and canopy dwellers drone on and on across a hypnotic aural ambiance. But because this is the second half of the film, following the loose if still narrative-bound and cliché-ridden love story of the first half, this slog does not need to make sense or be exciting to move us terribly, ineffably, irrevocably. The juxtaposition between orthodox tale of courtship and mystical, lyrical allegory affects the viewer on a subconscious level, where the associations can stay and fester and grow in significance for days and weeks after first viewing. That it does without analyzing it, reading it. So while it is not the most natural endeavor to break a movie like this down, paying attention to its visual form and parallels in narrative helps translate a hard-to-place but unforgettable experience into powerful, lasting lessons.

Tropical Malady opens with a scene of merriment, of soldiers smiling and taking proto-selfies. The camera adopts a handheld point of view akin to some unseen participant in the moment. It does not tilt downward so much as walk back a step or two to catch a glimpse of a flailing arm attached to what we realize is most definitely a corpse. A dissonance between emotion and context hits us, and we are not sure how to really react. The falseness of the human face — how it can never convey what we feel within — comes up again and again throughout the film, especially whenever two make eye contact. In that absence, Apichatpong finds truth in nature, landscape and, most crucially, juxtaposition. The film cuts from this embodied perspective to an extreme long shot of the soldiers traversing the heath, corpse in tow. The considerable duration of this shot, as well as its distance, stillness and sonic quietude, allows us to process the soldiers’ demoralizing actions just prior. A naked man, alone, stalks the brush not far away. From the very beginning, we know that things are not as they seem.

The human smile, an icon of romantic cinema, betrays its emptiness in Tropical Malady. When the soldiers eat dinner at Tong’s family house, one of them eyes his sister with blatant intent. She returns the gaze with a suggestive licking of her spoon. Mother looks from man to daughter in disbelief, and we giggle because we know, as she does, that these two aren’t thinking of love —they want something easier. Meanwhile, the film’s protagonist, Keng, looks up to the sky as he occupies the lowest fringes of the frame, and then he does something odd: he looks at us. Well, maybe just over the camera lens, but he seems to enlist us, somehow, in this encounter. This reading only gains more traction with the next shot, of Tong, in profile, averting Keng’s eyes and looking awkward while doing it. We can attest to the intimacy of Keng’s gaze, and Tong avoids it not just because he is shy or confused about his orientation or whatever — he avoids it because he does not think there’s any substance behind that focused stare. Keng is not for real, right now, he thinks. Do not forget that Tong walks around with a forced mask of a smile for most of his screen time, a smile he sticks with because it beats nothing. He sure feels something warm inside when he spends time with Keng — their romance is real — even if that feeling does not come across on his face. But the condescending way he sniffs Keng’s hand, later, and licks it after Keng’s sincere sign of affection, and proceeds to exit the whole movie, confirms Tong’s distrust in genuine, loving two-way contact.

This distrust in intimacy as a sign of love — and, by extension, the existence of true love, itself — emerges as the film’s primary thematic struggle. On first viewing, I may have missed some nuances of the jungle-set half, but I know it culminates in that arresting shot reverse shot sequence between Keng and the tiger. Sensing that the tiger in the tree is a reincarnation of Tong, with the same memories and feelings for him (“I miss you, soldier”), Keng quivers at the sight. His one hand trembles with a knife, while the other shines a flashlight on the tiger’s face, so that Keng can study Tong’s gaze now, in his atavistic form, so direct and uncompromising. The tables have turned, with Tiger-Tong as sincere, to a prelapsarian degree, and Keng as conflicted. Tiger-Tong forces him to play in the gamble that is love, where committing oneself to another requires the destruction of the self, in hopes that it will sublimate to some higher unity. 

Is true love not so? If your devotion is serious, you will embrace your lover not only physically but spiritually: in an intertwining of your mind and soul with his or hers. Baring yourself in such a vulnerable way can lead you to a divine plane of existence, or it could leave you a mess of body parts and shredded clothing in the corner of some tiger’s den. Either way, it is your choice. Either way, you must destroy to create something better. Keng wrestles with this paradox, to some extent, for he bows to the tiger with the words, “Monster, I give you my spirit, my flesh and my memories.” 

Monster. Tiger-Tong returns Keng’s gaze with the severity that long eluded him and Keng responds by calling him a monster. Only a monster could demand such sacrifice. The rest of us are upright and civilized, and have no clue what he means. Thankfully we have this film, for us, in our seated solitude, to tap into and discover, through the irreducible language of cinema, the stakes, beauty and music of human connection. 

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