Tropical what...?

Sept. 8, 2005, midnight | By Becca Sausville | 18 years, 10 months ago

Thai "Tropical Malady" is enticing but confusing

It takes a special type of American to truly appreciate foreign films. Scores of foreign films are released in limited theaters across the United States each year, but only a few manage to burrow their ways into the hearts of Americans. Who can really say why some movies just can't break into the wonderland of wide release? Well, it's easy to tell with "Tropical Malady," a Thai film filled with interesting cinematography, a confusing plot and complex existential situations.

The film begins in the wild of Thailand with Thai soldier Keng (Banlop Lomnoi) being, well, a soldier. He poses with his infantry over a cadaver; he walks around with his gun. Then we meet Tong (Sakda Kaewbuadee), a seemingly innocent young man living in the country with his family. The two men grow close as Keng helps Tong learn how to drive (so he can land a promotion for his job at an ice delivery center), gives him a tape of The Clash (Tong's favorite band) and brings Tong's family food. The film becomes a chronicle of Keng's courtship of Tong: the sweet dialogue, thoughtful notes and romantic escapades.

Sakda Kaewbuadee and Banlop Lomnoi in Strand's Tropical Malady.

The love story is a sweet one, even if the seemingly pointless scenes (Tong playing soccer; Keng just walking around in his uniform) throw viewers off at times. After the initial courtship, Keng has to leave for the jungle. At this point, the film completely shifts into the retelling of a Thai legend of a shaman with the ability to shapeshift. Lomnoi still plays a soldier, but this time he is a soldier in the Thai jungle. Kaewbuadee plays the lonely (yet still ferocious) shaman who can turn into a tiger but otherwise runs around naked.

The tiger story is not only confusing, but grows increasingly dull as the soldier struggles with the task at hand: The shaman is terrorizing the villagers and their livestock, but he is lonely and apparently has a thing for the soldier. In this way, the tiger and the soldier parallel any story of star-crossed lovers. A monkey tells the soldier (yes, the monkey actually talks Monkey, which has Thai subtitles, which then has English subtitles) that the tiger sees him as both prey and a companion. Therefore, the soldier either has to kill the shaman's spirit to release him from the ghost world, or he has to let the tiger devour him so they can be together.

Yet, the film should not be dismissed as a forgettable and confusing foreign production. It is visually rich, juxtaposing the Thai wilderness with the crowded and hot Thai cities. Director Apichatpong Weerasethakul has done an excellent job with casting; Lomnoi and Kaewbuadee have a beautiful chemistry. Their budding relationship is a joy to watch, since the nervous sparks between them are understandable to anyone who has ever had a crush on someone. Weerasethakul has also succeeded in the sense that although he thoroughly confused most viewers, he did it while making a powerful statement about the nature of life and love in parallel to the story of Keng and Tong. They need each other, but who knows what sacrifices they will have to make to be with each other? That is the eventual question that the soldier must answer to be with the shaman…or ghost…or tiger. It may confuse the audience to no end, it may leave them very unsatisfied, but the film will nonetheless make them think, and maybe even reflect upon their lives. And if a film has the ability to do that, then it is a welcome departure from the majority of vapid American films that flood the box office each year.

"Tropical Malady" (120 minutes, in Thai with subtitles, at the AFI Silver) is not rated and features nudity and some violence.

Becca Sausville. Becca is a senior who is keeping the dinosaur dream alive. She loves Silver Chips a lot, possibly more than life itself. More »

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