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Knees touch in the dark of the cinema. Shoulders grazing when perched on the sala. Flittering glances exchanged over dinner. In a small rural town in Northern Thailand, love blossoms.
Keng, a soldier stationed just outside of town, meets Tong, a younger man. Their story is altogether unhurried: snippets of their lives, together and without one another, are combined to reveal a tender, almost shy, courtship.
Though nothing explicit occurs and no grand confession is articulated, the romance between the two men is clear. They take Tong’s dog to the veterinarian, and stroll through the night market together, and visit cave temples together, and lay their heads in one another’s lap. They fall in love.
Such is the simple and carefree first half of Apichatpong’s film. It ends, however, on a most jarring tone. After a dreamy night, the final glimpse we see of Keng and Tong – as we know them – is Keng, perched on Tong’s empty bed in the bright, unyielding sunlight of the morning. He’s flipping through Tong’s photo album, but where is Tong?
The second half, which opens with its own title sequence, moves the film entirely into metaphor. Here, a soldier who looks like Keng is tracking a tiger, believed to be the spirit of an ancient, powerful shaman trapped in animal form. We see the tiger when the soldier does: as a human who looks like Tong with animal stripes painted on his face.
In the next hour, events tensely unfold in near silence, as the soldier tracks the man-tiger deeper and deeper into the jungle. Exhaustion hits, and the lines between the physical and spiritual world begin to blur. After one confrontation, which the tiger wins, a character tells the soldier, “you are his prey and his companion.”
The final hypnotic sequence of the film leaves us with more questions than answers. The soldier now faces the shaman in his animal form: a majestic, fully-fledged tiger. During their telepathic exchange, we’re shown a painting of a tiger taking the soul of a man, as the man submits. The tiger’s gentle yet overwhelming voice narrates: “Every drop of my blood sings our song. A song of happiness. Do you hear it?”
It’s not an exaggeration to say that few Thai films have left their conclusion as open-ended as “Tropical Malady.”
We are left to our own interpretations as Apichatpong’s allegorical second half comes to a close. Is the soldier beaten by the tiger? Or do the two intertwined souls finally have a chance to be together for eternity?
Perhaps the second half provides a commentary on the first, or maybe is an extrapolation of events in a deeply fictitious realm. Arguably, though, the naturalistic narrative anticipates its supernatural sequel: the opening quote states that “all of us are by nature wild beasts.” Is Apichatpong suggesting desire is beastly, or that our primal instincts should be trusted?
“Tropical Malady,” after all this time, continues to be a mystery. Its interpretation remains in the hands of its audiences, every changing with time. It is a mystery, though, where more pleasure lies in not solving it. Letting the questions simmer in your mind offer a better experience than trying to seek objective answers.
What lies at the core of the movie is a love that is as empowering as it is dangerous, as casual and minute as it is all-consuming. Keng‘s pursuit of Tong is played for us twice; and both times, it seems almost unrequited, until the last moment, when Tong makes clear his own attraction. The deepest romances are found not in sexual fulfilment but the spiritual embrace between two people.
Apichatpong’s work shines brilliantly as a film that pushes against every narrative convention. The bifurcation allows for a style of storytelling that remains fresh, whether viewers are familiar with indie cinema or not.
Peter Bradshaw wrote in a contemporary review that there’s no predicting how “Tropical Malady” will hold in the future: “it may turn out to be a masterpiece or simply a cult classic or just barking mad.” The film is – most assuredly, incredibly, and beautifully – all three.