Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s “Tropical Malady” is utterly strange, the first movie I can remember in quite a while that I started again from the beginning immediately after finishing.
The film begins as a meandering contemporary romance between a young Thai solider named Keng and a naive farm boy named Tong. Then, about halfway in, the narrative stops just as it hints at its climax (pun intended). Opening with no clear delineation, the second half of the movie is a spare, poetic fable about a soldier pursued by a supernatural spirit as he searches the forest for a lost villager. Exactly how connected the two segments are supposed to be is left ambiguous — though the soldiers in each are played by the same actor (Banlop Lomnoi), as are the farm boy and the spirit’s human form (Sakda Kaewbuadee).
Do the two narratives share characters and continuity, or are they merely meant to complement each other thematically? Aside from the shared actors, what other clues might hint at the relationship between the film’s two halves? Those are the questions that drove me to re-start the movie. And: I still do not have any clear answers. But I don’t think “Tropical Malady” intends to offer them. Rather, I think it invites the viewer to ruminate on the nature of romantic love and the human condition.
Indeed, Apichatpong’s film seems very much rooted in Buddhism. I’m no expert, and certainly no Buddhist, but the movie’s abrupt endings and open-ended questions remind me very much of a zen koan. In fact, in the first narrative, a character shares a koan-like parable with Keng and Tong before bringing them to explore and pray in a temple in a nearby cave.
This forces me to wonder: Would a deeper understanding of the Buddhist tradition offer a richer experience with “Tropical Malady”? (Recall how my unfamiliarity with classic Westerns blunted my appreciation of “Once Upon a Time in the West.”)
In any case, I found it a fascinating and at times profoundly moving work of art. One scene in particular literally took my breath away.
If you watch it, dim the lights, tuck your phone away, and let it hit you like a rainstorm — one doesn’t need to be an expert in the properties of water to appreciate the sensation of being wet.