Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Tropical Malady, one of the most talked-about films of the new Thai cinema, is a beautifully opaque film. The first half is a low-key love story between two young men, one a soldier and the other not. The camerawork here seems almost documentary-like (restlessly moving handheld camera, ambient sound that often drowns out the dialogue, naturalistic shots that often seem carelessly framed and composed), until you notice all the strange discordancies (jump cuts; extreme jumps in time over a continuing soundtrack, so that it seems as if the same scene is continuing although the actors are wearing different clothes and it has changed from day to night, or it has clearly become the next day; extreme long shots when a fairly intimate scene is in progress). The result is less to distance us from the characters and their feelings, than to emphasize, rather sweetly, how the feelings themselves are tentative and uncertain, as these lovers are still just starting to get to know one another.
But around the middle of the film, everything suddenly changes. Now we have very self-consciously artful cinematography, with continuity rules mostly observed. A soldier (I couldn’t tell for sure if it was the same actor as in the first half), in the jungle and mostly at night, is tracking some sort of ghost or spirit. There is almost no dialogue. We have titles, superimposed on what looks like an ancient painting, telling us of a shaman who takes on the form of a tiger; there are also ghosts and other apparitions, not to mention a talking monkey (who tells the soldier that he must either kill the shaman/tiger, or be devoured by him). The screen is mostly dark; we barely see shapes emerging out of the shadows, it feels like we are on the edge of hallucination. The sound is ambient noises of the jungle. The pace is slow; there’s a lot of waiting. (Also, the soldier often pauses to peel off leeches from his legs and arms). The ending is ambiguous: the soldier confronts the tiger/shaman, and the scene turns back into the ancient painting.
Can we take this second part of the film as an allegory of desire? of its delays, its intense demands, its engulfing depths? That’s the best idea I have for understanding how the second part might relate to the first. But I think it’s more a matter of rhythms of affect, than it is of making literal sense of the narrative. Love starts in the everyday; but at some point it turns into an abyss (or, more accurately, it has already turned into an abyss: for the point at which it metamorphoses is something that we can only apprehend retrospectively). (Also, “abyss” is not precisely the word I want here; for what I am conceiving as the “abyss” of passion is something that, in Tropical Malady at least, unfolds horizontally, in the jungle at night: a slow movement through a menacing and marvelous labyrinth, perhaps, rather than a descent into the depths). In any case, we move from the everyday to a kind of giving, or willed loss, that can only be represented obliquely (that is only obliquely). It’s sort of like melodrama without any of the twists and turns, or ups and downs, that usually make up melodrama: a plotless and incidentless melodrama, which is of course an oxymoron, but in this case a necessary one.