Nailing down an Apichatpong Weerasethakul film is as hard (and futile) as assigning "answers" to a Terrence Malick film. Like Malick, Weerasethakul builds on ideas from previous films, but Joe goes even further: he reuses not only themes and motifs but actors and even characters. Yet for all his variations on similar, even identical, material, Joe has never made two films exactly alike. Tropical Malady may be the clearest illustration of this, as it comprises two wildly different halves that, when viewed correctly, reveal themselves to be flip-sides of the same subject, approached with such a marked contrast that the two sections seem to share nothing but the same actors.
Coming to Tropical Malady after seeing the films that followed it, I can instantly see what Joe took with him to Syndromes and a Century and Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives. The foundational idea of the latter comes from this film, in a tossed-off line by the illiterate country boy who would return to ease his uncle's passing years later, and the opening scene of soldiers lining up for a photo prefigures the La jetée-inspired still photograph sequence in Joe's latest triumph. Its ties to Syndromes run much deeper: Syndromes split its narrative between rural and urban, capturing the prosaic and poetic in each. Tropical Malady, on the other hand, moves between city and country (in one half, at least) but clearly demarcates a realistic first half from a magical, allegorical and abstract counterpart. This suggests two things: that Weerasethakul had not yet perfected his technique of blending the stark with the searching, and also that he marked such distinct divisions between the two to illustrate the potential and limitations of both.
In the first half, Keng (Banlop Lomnoi), one of the aforementioned soldiers investigating a rash of livestock slaughter in a rural Thai village, meets Tong (Sakda Kaewbuadee), an illiterate country laborer who always seems to have a smile on his face. The two form a bond almost instantly and begin hanging out both in the countryside and in the city. Soon, their bond strengthens to the point that they occupy the nebulous territory between Platonic friendship and homosexual romance, their playful antics containing overt eroticism—Keng rubbing Tong's thigh in a movie as Tong puts his other leg over Keng's hand, little love notes that could be interpreted either way. Yet these suggestive moments are undercut by Tong's innocence, his unlearned, childlike ways of interacting with others. Joe drops thinly veiled hints of Keng's homosexuality via conversations he has with other men, but Tong comes off as a babe in the woods, and any flirtatious action toward Keng on his part seems largely copycat reciprocation as if learning how to communicate with people.
The motif of communication recurs throughout the film: cellphones and cellphone advertisements are ubiquitous in the city, posters printing words like "connection" in English. But cellphones do not particularly seem to connect people. Riding on a bus, Tong smiles at a woman with a hollow-eyed innocence that borders on leering predation. She smiles back awkwardly, only to pull out her phone and begin playing with it and chatting the way we all do when a situation is too uncomfortable. While out in the jungle at the very start and in the whole second half, Keng has a radio, but all it can pick up is a garbled voice. Eventually, it doesn't even get that, totally lost to static. The best communication occurs out in the countryside, away from all the distractions, but even then, rainfall and rustling wind bury the dialogue in the sound mix, revealing communication issues everywhere.
As previously noted, Joe frames the first half in static long takes emphasizing the realism of the mise-en-scène, all of it captured on-location and with an aesthetic that stresses artful composition but does not shift the world around the players. Weerasethakul captures the light whimsy of the budding romance: the soldiers smile for their picture in the opening seconds of the film, and smiles dot the faces of practically everyone for the first half, and even the fake ones on mall employees and nervous ones on uncomfortable bystanders.
No one has a wider smile than Sakda, but as Keng's pursuits become more aggressive, Tong becomes less and less relaxed, and confusion seeps into his face. At last, Keng kisses and licks Tong's hands and arms one night, and the smile slowly fades completely on Tong's face. He copies the act, as usual, but the naïve joy in him no longer comes across, and even he realizes it. Afraid of what's happening, Tong runs into the infinite black of the night outside the pocket of light around a lamp, leaving Keng to drive home in his motorcycle in one last montage of realist imagery of the countryside and the city in POV shots.
Then comes the second half, which segues without break into Keng resuming his hunt for the killer of local livestock. As Keng moves into the jungle, something about the film shifts imperceptibly, and the only warning is a second set of credits introducing the segment "A Spirit's Path." As Keng moves deeper into isolation in the endless foliage, the style shifts from the realism of much contemporary Asian art cinema into something more brazenly abstract, even cinematic.
Soon we learn that the killer of livestock is a shaman who can shift between human and animal form, occasionally taking the shape of a tiger. Joe casts Sakda as the shaman, who runs around making feral whoops and shrieks naked in his human form. For all the strangeness, the implication is clear: where the film's low-key first half showed building passion through Stoic realism and inventive framing around locations—the almost offensively bright wall where a woman sings, the idyll of the village—"A Spirit's Path" brings out the tangled web of emotions within.
Weerasethakul uses dense imagery, unorthodox, deadpan framing and low-lit night shots so dim the frame occasionally plunges into near or total darkness. If the building passions at the end of the first segment gently revealed themselves to be too strong to control, the second half visualizes the full, terrible power of unchecked desire. The last thing Keng looks at before heading into the jungle are photos of Tong, and he encounters a wild-eyed, nude vision of the simple boy out in the woods who can morph into an exotic (and erotic) creature. This sheds light on the quote by a Thai novelist that opened the film: "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." When Keng confronts the tiger at the end (who stares directly at the camera as if as likely to lunge at the audience as Keng), the spirit says "I miss you, soldier." On the one hand, this statement almost sounds like a coy come-on from lingering memories of Tong, a stereotypical "Hello, sailor!" tempting Keng's desire. But perhaps the more vicious symbolism of the tiger comes into play here, the animal spirit of a killer beast wanting to see the soldier who perhaps used to do actually militaristic things like kill instead of hunt down cow thieves. The dual interpretations create a complex mesh of overwhelming desire and bestial aggression.
Illustrating this is a monkey that communicates with Keng via subtitled shrieks, telling the soldier that he must "kill [the tiger spirit] to free him from his ghost world or let him devour you and enter his world." If you don't see the sexual suggestion there, you're blind. The second half is more suggestive of death than sex, but it also illustrates how the two can co-mingle. Looked at from a certain light, Tropical Malady plays as a symbolic, pan-romantic Romeo and Juliet.
Just as important, Joe frames this latter half in blatantly cinematic terms, showing the limitations in long-take, long-shot realism in communicating the soul. He still uses a great deal of static, long shots, but the mise-en-scène warps around Keng instead of him simply being placed in front of it. Film history runs through Joe's work, culminating in this year's eulogy for classical film construction with Uncle Boonmee; here, he uses title cards as if the second half were a silent film (and, in long stretches, it more or less is, save for the sinister buzz and chirps of insects and other wildlife). It visualizes Keng's turbulent soul and the scary side of undiluted passion instead of having actors communicate this, either by spoken or body language, pulling it out of the realm of the theatrical and purely into film. Of course, without the grounding of the lovely, engaging first half, the second part of the diptych would be impenetrable hogwash inviting accusations of pretension. He's not assigning superiority, merely demarcating and exploring the two approaches.
You can't peg Weerasethakul down: just when his narrative divisions and stylistic and setting shifts suggest a love of dialectics, he goes for the whole hog with Uncle Boonmee and subdivides his story further. Tropical Malady might seem a response to the regional art cinema being made in conjunction with it, but Joe would move too quickly forward into yet more grace to seem particularly chastising. More than the other two, even the Hydra-structured Boonmee, Tropical Malady can seem disjointed. However, Joe covers an incredible amount of ground here, displaying his consideration of past and present (a Buddhist moral about greed finds a modern counterpoint in contestants on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire who lose money by reaching beyond their grasp to get yet more cash), rural and urban (a natural outgrowth of the past and present dichotomy), physical and metaphysical. It set off a string of masterpieces by the director on these topics, each building off the last and smoothing out the transitions between his splits. But those divisions still exist; in that sense, it's difficult to view Tropical Malady as an outright critical piece, as it sparked a series of features and short films that prove, with each superior upgrade, that Joe still has room to grow. So does everyone in every field, of course, but what makes Joe's case so special is that he drags the goal posts for the potential of cinema along with him as he goes.