Last week, as part of Hibbleton Gallery's film series, we watched a film by a Thai director named Apichatpong Weerasethakul called "Tropical Malady." This director is quite the badass of independent Thai cinema, eschewing the sort of "Hollywood model" that dominates the Thai film industry. He formed his own production company called Kick the Machine in 1999 to help foster a community of independent filmmakers in Thailand.
His most famous film, "Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives," won the Palme d'Or Prize at Cannes film festival in 2010, and he has continued to follow his own non-conformist path with each new film--creating a visual/poetic vocabulary all his own. His films are not meant as "entertainment"--they are meant as art--meditations on life, particularly in contemporary Thailand.
"Tropical Malady" begins with a quote by a Thai novelist: "All of us are by nature wild beasts. Our duty as human beings is to become like trainers who keep their animals in check and even teach them to perform tasks alien to their bestiality." This quote, I think, provides the ideological framework for the film. The film is basically in two parts. The first half follows a fairly ordinary-seeming love story between two young men--a solider named Keng and an ice-house worker named Tong. They go to the movies, listen to music together, exchange fond words, but end up separating in the end.
It is in the second half of the film that things get strange and interesting. The second half mainly takes place in the forest, and centers around Keng hunting a tiger, which turns out to be the animal-spirit of Tong, his lover. This half reminded me a bit of Tarkovsky, with slow, extended sequences. It almost puts the viewer into a trance-like state. It is bare bones, elemental, mythic. All we hear are the sounds of the forest droning on, and a man hunting a tiger.
This second half is beautiful and haunting at the same time, and gives new depth to the ordinary-seeming first half. What I think the director is suggesting is that any love story has a surface, ordinary, conscious element that we see…but there is also a deep, unconscious, ancient, mythic element to love stories as well, which makes them both lovely and terrifying.
I could especially relate to this because I was recently seeing someone who awakened a kind of inner storm inside me. From all appearances, we were just two people hanging out, having coffee, but what was happening in my internal world was strange and deep, filled with unconscious fear and desire. I think this kind of dynamic is what is happening within us all the time, whether we are conscious of it or not.
"Tropical Malady" attempts, quite intensely, to tap into this dichotomy/struggle between our conscious ordinary lives and the deep oceans of memory, myth, and trauma that we carry inside, always, and perhaps, through art, to reconcile the two.