Back to Films index


TROPICAL MALADY, Thailand 2004
Director: Apichatpong Weerasethakul

This is not really a review of Apichatpong Weerasethakul's film Tropical Malady, but the reader may assume that I wouldn't be writing about it at such length if I didn't think highly of it. What I want to do is to attempt a coherent interpretation. I'm aware that this may be an improper thing to do. Both in its own nature and from the interview with Apichatpong that features on the DVD we see that the director wants the film to retain its mystery. He stresses that it is about the action of memory; he doesn't offer any suggestion of a precise 'meaning', allegorical or otherwise.
Nonetheless, the film is quite clearly a meditation on sexuality, specifically homosexual sexuality. It invites thought and it excites my interest because, rightly or wrongly, it seems to correspond unusually well with my own experience.
I say 'rightly or wrongly' because I find myself disagreeing with the well-informed essay by Tony Rayns that accompanies the DVD. Rayns does respect the mystery of the film, he doesn't offer much in the way of interpretation, he describes rather than interprets. But I disagree with his description.
But perhaps I should engage in a bit of description myself, though I'm inclined to suggest that this essay should be avoided by people who haven't seen it and don't want to have preconceived ideas imposed on them. The film presents itself as two films, each with its own title and credits. The first film is, or appears to be, simply a celebration of a wonderfully idyllic love affair between two young men - Keng, a soldier, and Tong, a worker, whose family live in the rural area where Keng is serving. Although they are both young, there is a difference in age - Keng, say, early twenties, and Tong, say, late teens - which has its own significance. They like each other, enjoy each other's company, never seem to quarrel, and everyone around them seems to be well disposed towards them.
Rayns says that this is not a love story. He doesn't see in it a course of events. Following Apichatpong's own suggestion, he sees it as operating like memory, a series of different, essentially disconnected events in a mutually loving gay relationship. I, however, do see a story, a course of events, which is the development of a friendship that only at the end might - or might not - have developed into a sexual relationship.
It is very clear that Keng is sexually attracted to Tong. It is equally clear that Tong likes Keng, is aware of his sexual interest, is willing to indulge it up to a point, but it is not at all obvious that he returns it. Rayns talks about a scene in which the two of them are 'groping each other in a cinema.' That isn't how I read it. They are sitting beside each other in the cinema. Keng presses his leg against Tong's leg. Then he places his hand on Tong's leg. Normal practice, when one finds oneself on the receiving end of such attentions and wishes the situation to develop further is to act as if nothing was happening and allow the hand to advance as it will. Certainly one doesn't act in such a way as to attract the attention of other people in the cinema. What Tong does, however, is to whip his other leg over Keng's hand, thus trapping it and preventing its further progress. The result is a playful, and publicly noticeable, fight between them. You could read it as a joke between two men in a gay relationship. But I'm more inclined to read it as Tong, in the most playful and friendly manner possible, putting a stop to Keng's advances.
In the same scene in the cinema, Keng is seen in the toilet chatting with a gay friend. One has the impression that the gay friend has sat beside Keng in the same cinema on previous occasions and is disappointed not to be able to do it this time. He remarks that Keng is looking very happy. Keng replies that today is payday. Maybe he means that literally. Or maybe he means the day when he hopes to get what he wants from Tong. Another delicate indication that Keng is known on the gay scene is the discreet friendly look exchanged with the leader of an open-air aerobics team. There are no similar indications for Tong. Indeed, quite the opposite. Very early in the film we see him on a bus sitting opposite a very pretty girl. A most wonderful sort of ballet is enacted between them, each trying to steal glances at the other, and each simultaneously wanting to establish eye contact and to avoid it. It is interrupted when Keng and his army friends pull up beside the bus and Keng starts shouting at Tong, reminding him that they had met earlier the last time Keng was out in the country. Tong remembers Keng's face but has forgotten his name. The relationship at that point is clearly not very far advanced.
Keng makes friends with Tong's family, bringing them treats  from the delicatessen in town. He gives Tong what I think is an MP3 download of The Clash. He teaches - or tries to teach - him to drive a truck. He lends him his uniform so he can wander round town in it - though Tong himself seems to think this is rather pointless. He helps him look after his sick dog. These are all obviously ways of establishing a relationship (if I were the Daily Mail I might say Keng is 'grooming' Tong). The relationship worries Tong's mother. In another rather wonderful eye movement ballet, Keng is sitting with the whole family. Tong's mother thinks he may be interested in her daughter. She is keeping an eye on him, or rather on his eyes. He does look at the daughter, but she soon realises where his eyes are settling. Later, doing her son's laundry, she finds in his hip pocket a little note from Keng: 'I like you very much.' She shows it to Tong, who probably hadn't been aware of it. Tong, showing masterful skill at dealing with a difficult situation, makes a joke of it. He writes a reply and tries to get his mother to sign it as if she thought it was addressed to her. The mother - like everyone else in the film a very easy going soul - eventually goes along with this. Later, Tong stuffs the note into Keng's hip pocket, but he doesn't do it discreetly. He runs after Keng, laughing, with his hand in Keng's hip pocket and Keng protesting that they're being watched. But Tong doesn't care. Why should he?
Another example of Tong's lightheartedness comes when Keng asks if he can rest his head on his lap. Tong says 'No'. Then he laughs and says 'I mean ... no problem.' Keng settles himself comfortably (need I say that it is the back of his head that is in Tong's lap?). He then makes Tong a profession of love. Tong handles it with his customary aplomb. He knows perfectly well that Keng is serious but he takes it up as a joke. He doesn't refuse Keng's profession of love, but nor does he return it - though he does affectionately stroke his head.
I am sorry to be labouring what seems to me to be a rather obvious point but I am responding to Tony Rayns's account. What we see in the film is certainly a relationship of mutual affection. But it is not so certainly - at least not until the very end - a relationship of mutual sexual attraction.
Tony Rayns, obviously with the second film in mind, sees hidden depths - a dark side - to the Tong of the first film. But his evidence is slight. Very early in the film we see in long shot Tong naked, walking through a field. It is a hint of what is to come in the second film. I read it as a manifestation of Tong as he exists in Keng's mind, though it is possible it is to do with Tong's own subjective idea of himself. It continues with Tong arriving home - fully clothed - as if he has been out walking in the country. But it is certainly not something that Tong is actually doing. Then there is a scene in a sacred cavern. Tong and Keng are with a very friendly woman who is showing them round. She shows them a dark passage. Tong is willing to explore it, Keng is not. Rayns interprets this as showing a sinister, or dark, aspect to Tong. It seems to have escaped his attention though that the very friendly and jolly woman is also willing to enter the passage. She has explained that at the end it comes out on a beautiful view of a lake but, she says, only 'the blessed' manage to get that far. She then talks of horrible things that have happened to people, presumably people who are not among the blessed, who haven't been able to get that far. Both Tong and the cheery woman think they've got a chance, that they might be among 'the blessed'. Keng is pretty sure that he isn't.
Another example Rayns gives is Tong in an amusement arcade 'shooting imaginary prey.' But really! that a teenager at a loose end in town should end up in an amusement arcade (giving helpful advice to the incompetent fellow next to him) doesn't seem to me to suggest a dark side to his character. Nor does the fact that he works in an ice cutting factory, though that certainly gives an opportunity for some quite dramatic images.
There is, however, a hint of hidden depths of a different kind that Rayns doesn't mention. Keng looking at Tong's hands asks him what caused the 'cuts'? He doesn't get a reply but what could that refer to other than that at one time Tong has attempted suicide by slashing his wrists? 
I haven't mentioned the most delightful scene in the film. Keng and Tong are at some sort of variety show watching a woman singer who, apologising for being older than her audience, dedicates a song to Keng, then invites Tong to join her singing it. It would take only the slightest tweaking to turn this scene into something very camp, but it isn't camp. Its just stunningly beautiful. The interaction between Tong and the professional singer doesn't immediately suggest that he is gay, though I'm not suggesting he isn't. There is an otherwise inconsequential scene in which Tong, wandering around town, finds himself looking wistfully at a young man sitting alone in a room where people are playing snooker. 
But we now come to the - in my view - mysterious end to the film. Keng and Tong are together. It is twilight. Tong is pissing. When he has finished, Keng takes his hand and begins kissing it. Tong responds with his usual good-natured laugh, saying he hasn't washed it. This does not act as a deterrent to Keng. Suddenly Tong stops smiling and looks worried. Then he takes Keng's hand and begins kissing it, caressing it with his mouth, almost gnawing at it in a way that we might say is a bit tigerish. From time to time he looks up inquisitively at Keng as if to say: 'Is this what I'm supposed to do?' Then he drops Keng's hand, looks at him with the same serious worried expression, suddenly reverts to his usual smile, turns round and walks off into the darkness, leaving Keng looking upset. The walk off into the darkness has something final about it and if the film had ended there we could say that Tong has finally given his definitive answer to Keng's advances. The answer is no. The smile indicates no hard feelings.
But the scene doesn't end there. The next thing we see is Keng apparently riding back to town alone on his motorbike. He is looking radiantly happy and is accompanied by happy sounding music. The mood continues even as he passes a group of youths kicking someone who is rolling on the ground. It is - apart perhaps from the soldiers discovering a dead body very early on - the only nasty image in this first film (any thought that the victim might be Tong can be discounted. Tong would have had to cover a lot of territory in a very short time). The next thing is, in perfect continuity, Keng with his army comrades returning to the countryside, which of course is where Tong lives. Everything suggests a lover hurrying to his beloved. Then we see Keng waking up, alone, in a bedroom. Small but comfortable it looks very unlike the sort of accommodation one would expect soldiers on patrol in Thailand to enjoy. He walks round the place. There is a stack of fluffy toys of the sort it might be easier to associate with Tong (regretting his poor taste) than with Keng. He sits down on the bed. He feels the surface of the bed as one might feel a surface where a lover had been. He hears a conversation outside the window. Two women are talking about a tiger who has been terrorising the village. 'A monster' one of them says. He looks at some old photographs of Tong - one of them showing him in military uniform with another boy, a photograph that has been mentioned earlier in the film. It is on that note that the first film ends and the second - centred on the theme of the tiger and, so Apichatpong tells us, on the theme of memory - begins.
At this point we might assume that Tong has finally yielded to Keng. But if that is the case what does Tong's earlier disappearance signify? If Keng is in Tong's bedroom, why do we not see Tong? Could it mean that this is the end of Tong as we have known him so far? That Tong has become someone, or something, else, something perhaps more like Keng?
I have devoted a lot of space to elucidating (I hope) a film that on the surface is perfectly plain and simple and not in need of elucidation. It is also a very sunny film, 'gay' in the non-sexual meaning of the term. The second film is almost an exact opposite. It is dark and mysterious. The connection with the first film seems to be tenuous. There is a connection - the strange scene of Tong walking naked through a field and the reference to the tiger. The main character in the second film is a soldier played by the same actor who plays Keng. It concerns his relationship with a shaman, played by the same actor who played Tong. The shaman is only seen by day. At night he turns into a tiger.
Tony Rayns tells us that the titles of these films are different in English and in Thai. In English it is just the first film that is called Tropical Malady - the second film is called A Spirit's Path. In Thai the first film was called Strange Creature or Monster; the second simply A Spirit. Both Tropical Malady and Monster are strangely negative titles for what appears to be such a thoroughly sunny film. Rayns says that the word he has translated as 'strange creature' or 'monster' is standard usage in the prolific Thai horror film industry. Its as if we might produce a straightforward love story and call it Vampire. Tropical Malady is also strange. As Rayns points out, Tropical Melody would be a suitable - if corny - title for what we have just seen. Like the Thai version, the title suggests that something is untoward where, so it appears, nothing is untoward. Or he could be saying - look, people think gay love is weird and sinister but here it is looking perfectly normal. But then we have the second film ...
The second film opens with us being told a fairy tale. A shaman has the power to turn into animals and he uses it to terrify a village. In the form of a tiger he is shot. Thereafter he assumes a spiritual existence in which he cannot escape his tiger form. The story is illustrated by a scene in which a villager, keeping a lookout for the tiger, is approached by a young girl who asks him to come with her because her mother is in difficulty. As he walks behind her, he sees that she has a tiger's tail, perhaps a rare indication that the subject of the film is sexuality in general rather than homosexuality in particular.
The last we saw of Tong in Tropical Malady he was disappearing into the darkness. Darkness is a major theme of A Spirit's Path. Apichatpong, declining to give any clues as to the interpretation of his film, does discuss the technical problem of obtaining a degree of darkness beyond what was usually considered possible or desirable. The soldier is walking through a forest at night with a flashlight and walkie-talkie (which doesn't succeed in giving him contact with the outside world). He is following the trail of a tiger. He is increasingly terrified.
But there are also scenes by daylight, when the tiger reverts to the human shape of the shaman, played by the same actor who played Tong. In these scenes, 'Tong' is naked, but there is nothing erotic in his nakedness. Whereas Tong was younger than Keng, the shaman, according to the story, is older, perhaps much older, than the soldier. There is no friendship between them. The shaman is fascinated not by 'Keng' but by his walkie-talkie. When they meet they fight. The combat between the clothed 'Keng' and the naked 'Tong' is shown in a long shot, stripping it of any possible erotic content. It ends with the shaman tossing 'Keng' over a cliff.
My understanding of all this is that Keng, prompted by the photograph of the two young men and perhaps by his successful seduction of Tong, is remembering, in fantastic form, his own induction into the gay scene. Although the shaman is not presented erotically he is nonetheless the object of erotic desire, a dehumanised being. The object of desire exercises power, even enormous power, over his pursuer, but it is not actually the real person who exercises the power, who defeats, even overwhelms, the lover. The 'object of desire' has as little to do with the real person as the shaman has to do with Tong. The object of desire has the external form of the real person but is really a figment of the pursuer's imagination. A figment of the pursuer's imagination which nonetheless exists independently of the pursuer and dominates, overthrows, the pursuer. 'Keng' is still trying to resist the power of this figment of his own imagination, but he cannot do it. He is defeated by a mindless, purposeless, zombie-like opponent, and thrown over a cliff.
The shaman had the power to turn into a tiger but finished by losing the power not to turn into a tiger. If the human shaped shaman is the object of sexual desire, the tiger is perhaps sexuality itself. The daytime confrontation with the shaman is bad but the night time, in the forest, surrounded by howling animals, is worse. A monkey explains to 'Keng' that the tiger is trailing him. He is 'starving and lonesome ... He can smell you from miles away.' Keng has a choice. If he kills the tiger, he will release the spirit that is in it, meaning the shaman. Otherwise, he himself, like the shaman, will be devoured and become part of the tiger: 'Soon you will feel the same'. The film  ends with 'Keng', reduced to crawling on all fours, confronting the tiger. The tiger prepares to devour him, explaining that once this happens he will be neither animal nor human. It happens (represented symbolically) but just before it happens the tiger comes out with what might be the most mysterious and evocative line in the film; 'Miss you, soldier' (the soldier disappearing as Tong disappeared at the end of Tropical Malady?). The last frame shows 'Keng' smiling: 'I give you my spirit, my flesh and my memories,' he says. 'Every drop of my blood sings our song - a song of happiness. Do you hear it?' The 'song' we hear in the background, is the howling of the animals in the jungle.
If, as I have suggested, Keng is remembering the process of his entering into a sexually active life, then it is not something that is presented in a very positive light. The soldier's 'happiness' at the end of A Spirit's Path, recalls Keng's happiness at the end of Tropical Malady. It is happiness of a particular sort. As - to put it very bluntly - a sexual predator, he is no longer entirely human; he is the 'strange creature' of the Thai title, or a 'spirit'. We might recall Wilfred Owen's wonderful poem Shadwell Stair about gay cruising in the London docks - 'I am the ghost of Shadwell Stair ... but when the crowing sirens blare/I with another ghost am lain'. Had 'Keng' killed the tiger, been able to resist the sexual urge, he would have liberated the spirit/shaman - he would have been able to enjoy Tong as a delightful, spirited young man, not as a magical, inhuman spirit-being. What happens in the juxtaposition of the two films is that what looks like a celebration of the normality of homosexual attraction in the first film appears in the second film as a dark, destructive process.
Tropical Malady opens with a motto from a Japanese popular writer: '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.' The relevance of this would seem to be very straightforward but Tony Rayns, quoting it, seems to me to turn it somewhat perversely on its head: 'The Nakajima quote has an obvious relevance to the film, and the notion that "civilisation" obliges us to perform tasks alien to our true nature.' 'Civilisation' bad; 'true nature' good. But the quote doesn't say anything about civilisation, it talks about 'our duty as human beings' - our real duty, which is to overcome our nature, to overcome the beasts within us.
I am not going to describe a film that is so clearly and beautifully expressive of a homosexual sensibility as an 'anti-gay' film but I do think it is a film that is calling on us to confront and overcome the power of sexual obsessiveness. It is an unusual and interesting 'message', and an unusual and interesting way of putting it over.