Usually, it is dialogue that drives the plot of a movie forward. But this is not the case with Tropical Malady, the latest film by Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul.
In Tropical Malady, Weerasethakul, like many other Asian directors, relies heavily on visual storytelling. The scenes in the film are rich in detail and beauty, and much of the plot tension is built up through action instead of dialogue.
In fact, the dialogue in this film would probably fill six pages at most. But the lack of dialogue is not the biggest challenge that Tropical Malady offers its viewers. The film is also painfully enigmatic.
Tropical Malady begins slowly, telling the story of a soldier named Keng who seduces a country boy named Tong. Their story is told through a string of scenes that take place in the sleepy Thai countryside.
The scenes chosen to tell the story seem a bit random and there also seems to be nothing remarkable about Keng and Tong’s relationship. They go out together, they flirt and cuddle and when Tong’s dog gets sick, Keng drives him to the vet.
Everything continues at this normal, sleepy pace until about midway through the movie, when Tong gets off of Keng’s motorcycle and walks into the woods.
Shortly after Tong walks into the woods, the screen fades to black for about 10 seconds and then a new movie called The Spirit’s Journey begins.
The Spirit’s Journey once again features Keng and Tong, but now Tong is the ghost of a shaman who is able to transform himself into animals, and Keng is the soldier who goes in fearful pursuit of this shape-changing ghost.
Since The Spirit’s Journey takes place entirely in the jungle, and since it contains almost no dialogue, it can get a bit confusing. But any time that the action on the screen needs explaining, viewers are shown explanatory subtitles displayed over cave paintings. It is like watching a very slow-moving but intense silent film.
But when the film abruptly ends, the viewer is purposely left unsatisfied. “Did I just witness something profound?” a viewer might ask. “Or was that all just nonsense?”
Weerasethakul is apparently going for just this effect. By leaving the connection between the first and the second parts of the film open to interpretation, he is inviting the viewer to ponder just what that connection might be. So while the viewer might leave unsatisfied, at least he or she will be thinking.
In any case, Tropical Malady is not the sort of film to see if you just want to kick back. It requires intense attention on the part of the viewer, and it is definitely only for those who like films that force them to think.
Daniel J. Kristie can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.