I finally sat down to watch Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Tropical Malady. I've been meaning to see it for some time, looking for one of the elusive "actually good gay movies," and I’ve added this one to my personal canon. Weerasethakul’s movies have the effect of pulling you out of your body and making you feel completely out of place for a period after the viewing; when I saw Cemetery of Splendour in its theatrical release, my friend and I walked home in near silence as we regained footing in the material world.
One of the few directors who can actually sell magic realism, Weerasethakul also presents one of the most organic and believable romantic build ups in recent memory. It's sweet and charming but there's still the sense that the two men, Keng, a soldier who just arrived in town and Tong, a villager are concealing something. There are so many honest moments, how they meet in the crowded city street with Tong riding in a truck, the way Keng erotically smells Tong's hand after he urinates, their bashful entanglement of limbs in a movie theater. The film projects a sense of true affection littered discreetly with signals that the two men aren't completely allowing one to know the other fully.
The film's second half places Keng alone in the forest, hunting a dangerous tiger who has been mutilating cattle throughout the story. Barely a word is spoken outside of Keng unsuccessfully trying to communicate through a walkie talkie and the brief appearance of a subtitled monkey. The tiger is Tong, sometimes in human form, sometimes as an actual tiger. There are references here to a Thai folk tale that the two seem to be reenacting. The fact that Tong is hunting his lover, who the monkey tells him is also stalking him, casts a dark shadow over the sweetness of the film's first half. The monkey informs Tong that he must either kill the tiger to set its soul free, or allow the tiger to kill him, where Tong will join the tiger in the darkness forever. Keng and Tong's relationship is subverted through this metaphorical hunt, demonstrating what was perhaps the secret nature of their courtship all along.
Darkness and all, the film somehow feels hopeful, even if just for the uplifting first half and jaw dropping beauty throughout. As in many of Weerasethakul's films, he spiritual world invades gently, mingling with the mundane. A woman might be talking about "Who Wants to be a Millionaire" and in the same breath talking about a genuine ghost. In the more recent Cemetery of Splendour, a woman mingles with Goddesses and later takes a tour through her companion's dream world while we watch from the outside.
A key to the beauty of Weerasethakul's films is the way the viewers distanced from the action. So many shots are full body, showing a person in their larger surrounding, and a close up is rare. Silence is allowed to exist; so many moments of this film are filled with sound of wind blowing and leaves rustling. This gives the environment and its mystic nature narrative weight while giving every moment ample breathing room. It's in this sense that Tropical Malady itself seems to breathe, take on a life of its own and linger in the audience’s heart.