The opening scene of Tropical Malady shows a squad of Thai army Forest Patrol soldiers posing for digital photos around the body of a dead man they've found at the edge of the jungle. They bring the corpse back to a nearby farmhouse, where it sits outside overnight in a body bag while the soldiers chat with the farmers about spirits. Then the scene shifts to a nearby town, where a pretty young woman on a bus is flirting with a young man named Tong. Just as things are progressing, a truck full of soldiers pulls alongside and Keng, one of the army men, greets Tong (played by Sakda Kaewbuadee). Tong promptly forgets all about the woman and hooks up with the handsome Keng (Banlop Lomnoi), and a gay romance begins -- of a certain mysterious type.
Welcome to the domain of writer-director Apichatpong Weerasethakul, one of the new breed of Thai filmmakers who are changing the atmosphere for international-style productions from Thailand. That Southeast Asian country has had a relatively healthy domestic film industry for years, but the types of films that sneaked out onto Western festival and art circuits were usually either nondescript village pictures (quiet romances and the like) or glossy-but-dumb historical spectacles like The Legend of Suriyothai. Recently, though, Thai film companies have been making a concerted effort to export more sophisticated productions aimed, presumably, at Western audiences who have visited the country as tourists. The costumed martial-arts adventure Ong-Bak: Muay Thai Warrior got some serious multiplex play stateside, but along with the commercial punch-'em-outs came one or two more ambitious, harder-to-sell films.
The intriguing, elusive, seemingly contradictory Thai attitude toward homosexuality and gender put such films as Beautiful Boxer (the dramatized true story of a transsexual Muay Thai fighter) and The Adventures of Iron Pussy (a slapstick comedy about a cross-dressing crime fighter) into open-minded festivals in the United States and Europe. The latter film was codirected by Weerasethakul, a US-trained, Bangkok-based artist whose narratives, when they're not poking fun at the jokey conventions of Thai farce, venture into some very bizarre, dreamlike territory. His drama Blissfully Yours (2002), which screened here at the SF International Film Festival, made a strong case for the existence of the Thai art film with its elliptical love story involving two heterosexual couples living near the dangerous Myanmar border. The characters often seemed to be sleepwalking through the bush, and the sex scenes were daring in a matter-of-fact way. The pacing of Blissfully Yours was particularly interesting -- things happened (or more often, failed to happen) at the speed of real life, that is, slowly. But by the end of the film we were amazed to find that although nothing apparently took place, somehow everything had changed for the characters and their relationships to each other.
That same ultrasubtle, organic, almost nonlinear method of storytelling is at work in Weerasethakul's Tropical Malady (2004, Thai title: Sud Pralud), which won the Special Jury Prize at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival. What initially appears a vague and meandering plot line is actually our introduction into a sort of dream state where nothing is what it seems on the surface. Filmmakers have worked in this way before, of course, but for most of us Weerasethakul's homegrown Thai parable-inside-formula is as exotic as a trek through the Golden Triangle.
The first half of the story lays down the mundane details of provincial life, as we discern as best we can what these two men are all about. Tong, a former soldier who works in an ice factory running dangerous-looking buzz saws to cut blocks of ice for market, is kind of a hick, with family in the hill country near the jungle. He has the face of a bad-luck baby, and everything seems unfamiliar to him -- even how to drive a truck. We discover that Tong is illiterate, although he knows his way around video games. Keng, on the other hand, is mostly concerned with lining up a part-time job to earn cash when he isn't on army patrol. The two begin their gay relationship hesitatingly, flirting at first and later progressing to groping (at the movies) and awkward cuddling -- no sex, implied or otherwise.
Odd, unconnected things occur: The two find Tong's pet dog lying in the road at night, and later the animal develops cancer. Tong gets up and sings a tender love duet with a molam chanteuse. Tong and Keng visit a cave temple where a tinny electronic version of "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" is playing near the altar. They meet an older woman who offers them marijuana and shows them her good-luck phallus ("blessed by monks"). In a passing-by tracking shot, we witness a gang of teenagers stomping a victim on the street. And the two men begin to fall under the influence of the spirit life that exists all around them, beginning with a seemingly harmless parable of a little monk and some pond stones, and progressing to stranger, darker currents.
Although Tropical Malady played San Francisco's Frameline29, its naturalistic gay love story is pretty much incidental, and the second half of the film makes a sharp turn into Heart of Darkness turf. It would be unfair to reveal just what happens when Tong and Keng make their trip into the jungle, but we could see it coming, if only in retrospect. Director Weerasethakul leaves us plenty of clues: The cow that disappears one night, a string of parables, and so on. Keng goes into the forest dressed in full combat gear with his rifle, and we get lost along with him. Somewhere along the way, time becomes indistinct, as in a dream. A monkey comes down from a tree and warns Keng -- its chatter is translated for us. We see a tree that glows at night, and the ghost of a water buffalo. Superb sound and camera work bring the jungle alive as it has been in few movies; nighttime shots of vegetation have seldom been so spooky. And of course it's mostly done in the camera, with no computer graphics. Reportedly, the literal translation of the Thai title is "Strange Animal," but there is very little literal about this deceptively eerie movie. It will be difficult for many viewers to stick with it, but those who do will be rewarded with a rare, uncompromising trip to the other side of reality. And maybe one or two weird dreams of their own.