Thai wunderkind Apichatpong Weerasethakul (commonly referred to as "Joe"), who just happens to be one of the most unique and original filmmakers in the world today, recently stated: "In the environment in Thailand, everything is mixed. We absorb everything. When you look at Thai food, or fashion, or architecture, its like we dont have any real identity." Same could be said for his work so farits a mixture of myth and reality, city and country, pop and tradition, personal and mysterious, linear and elliptical one could go on and on. For his latest film, the 2004 Cannes Special Jury prize winning Tropical Malady (Sud Pralat), Joe has borrowed a few elements from two of his key and most acclaimed films so far: Mysterious Objects at Noon (2000) and Blissfully Yours (2002).
Mysterious Objects is often referred to as an "Exquisite Corpse," meaning that its surrealist storytelling technique involves various storylines contributed by many writers while being unaware of what the other has said. Seems like a disaster, right? Not with Joe; so instead, the film is blithely and carelessly capricious. While on the outside, it may seem like Malady doesnt follow the same routine, it constantly shifts identities internally. In Malady, however, Joe is able to stage those shifts while keeping narrative flow: a folk tale about greed is interrupted by a reference to a Thai version of "Who Wants to be a Millionaire"; a scene in a dilapidated roadside shack is followed by one in a high-tech "western" mall; a statue of Buddha is accompanied by Christmas music; often, scenes from remote countryside are contrasted with ones taking place at either a computer or a vet. lab.
On the other hand, Malady, as a whole, follows the two-part structure of Blissfully Yours. Title credits in both films appear at the midway point (in the new film they also show at the beginning). While in the former, the "blissful" passage takes place at the end, in the latter, its at the start. And that passage in Malady involves two men: a muscular soldier from the city, Keng (Banlop Kamnoi), whos assigned to jungle patrol, and his introverted country boyfriend, Tong (Sakda Kaewbuadee), who works at an ice factory. While on holiday, these two lovers spend time together devoid of any worries or caresmovies, dinners (some with Tongs family), games, sightseeing, etc. But we only watch them flirt without going any further. Seemingly, this is the most "commercial" Joe has ever been. Thai critic Kong Rithdee reported that in Thailand audiences went crazy over dialogues such as this: Keng: "When I gave you The Clash cassette, I forgot to give you my heart. You can have it today... Here it is. Do you feel it? TONG: I'm receiving it. I can feel it."
As the second "half" begins after the credit sequence, we find Keng in the middle of the jungle chasing the mysterious creature (a shaman?) which was said to be harming the local livestock. This is the where the film enters its mythical and some might even say spiritual dimension. If the second halfs title, "A Spirit's Path," didnt convince you, then a talking baboon (thankfully subtitled) and an internally lit tree will. You wont see a more ravishing hour of film this yearguaranteed! Joes technical skills (both visual and aural) couldnt be maximized anymore than they are here in the darkest of nights in this dense environment. However, all along you cant help but think, "What is going on?," while you also try to find some sort of a correlation between this and the first half. But after making you follow this imaginative chess match, Joe moves you with a rendering: "I give you my spirit, my flesh, my memories. Every drop of my blood sings our song of happiness. Do you hear it?"
We certainly hear it, and even feel it, but we arent as intellectually involved here as were throughout Blissfully Yours, a better, more important film in general. Although, this is not a done deal. The incomparable Chuck Stephens, whos based in Bangkok, warned us very early on about these shape-shifting films and their filmmakers (the "sat pralats") after basically introducing Joe and the other young Thai master, Pen-Ek-Ratanaruang (Last Life in the Universe ), to the western world. I dont for a moment believe Joe in his soft-spoken manner claiming that this is a simple "storybook" telling. Why? The corpse in the opening sequence (or was it the ending? Did the corpse belong to someone "Blissful"?); the mockish 1000-watt smiles exchanged between various characters; Keng refusing to go through the "hole" on their trip together... and many, many more.
Awareness of political struggle between Thailand and Burma adds another whole dimension to Blissfully Yours, and here, as Joe once reported himself, the Thai government to this day claims that sex is harmful for human beings. Joe has embedded his message so deep that one might practically have to travel deep into the Thai forest to find some answers. So, it turns out that this Malady is Tropical and well have to wait a little while to find a cure.
*TROPICAL MALADY is available in the U.S. on DVD (Strand Releasing).