In the Forests of the Night
The unidentified topical malaise here may be the fidgets, or perhaps sleeping sickness. However, Tropical Malady/Sud pralad won Cannes’s Special Jury Prize before being part of the New York Film Festival; and while at this week’s MoMA screening one of two neighbors hated it, his companion was seeing writer-director’s Apichatpong Weerasethakul feature for the fourth time.
As unusual as previous works from the Art Institute of Chicago-educated Thai cult star, the film divides sharply into two portions, related by the continuing protagonists and, more than any of the pompous printed titles throughout, the opening one, “All of us are by nature wild animals.”
Three cinematographers are credited, and, however they shared out the workload, the highlighted facial bones, shiny vegetation surfaces and curving white tree trunks are, together with the use of sound (and its absence), arresting in the latter part, in the chlorophyll cloak of jungle. However, camera work in the first half appears jumpy and interrupted by confusing cuts and artsy tricks like seconds of black screen that at first appear projection problems, midway re-credits that repeat opening ones, or the several pretentious printed titles.
Troops on forest-fire patrol near the Golden Triangle find a carcass (which may or may not be related to one later on). Over two-way radio, a female dispatcher kids, “You’re hot and wild like a forest fire,” but handsome soldier Keng (Banlop Lomnoi) sets his sights on Tong (Sakda Kaewbuadee), an illiterate rural fellow who wears military gear while seeking a job in the city, has an old dog dying of cancer, and lives with his parents on the fringe of the lush jungle.
No one raises an eyebrow at the ongoing homosexual seduction, which progresses on the emotional plane though physical consummation remains in doubt. Simply, there are too many scenes involved here: on a bus or in a cistern truck where Tong is taught to drive, or at night a truck on a dirt road or motorbike on asphalted streets, in a veterinary hospital or a mall shoe store, or a cave to whose Buddhist shrine a woman guides the two men and a shopfront where garrulous sisters urge sodas and marijuana on them, or on raised wooden platforms or at mealtime with the family.
After an hour of such scene-shifting grinding to narrative standstill, the film flashes a native-art tiger while someone recounts the legend of a shaman with ability to transform his body into those of mighty animals of the forest primeval. Cows and villagers have vanished, presumably Tong too, so Keng enters the jungle armed but alone in search. Reminiscent of Predator but with metaphysical-metaphorical baggage, this is on a certain level the heart of darkness journey into oneself and back into racial memory. Picking off leeches, tracking some beast’s paw prints in the soft earth, beholding a contemplative real tiger like the Cheshire-Cat on a bough and the white ghost spirit of a humped cow, the soldier-lover confronts a naked tattooed wildman Tong, the object of his affection nimbly slouching like a non-homo sapiens primate. Indeed, a monkey gifted with speech warns that, seeking a companion, the shaman-feline is pursuer at the same time that it is prey.
What we make of this is blunted by Westerners’ unfamiliarity with southeast Asian jungle, folk legend, myth and religion. There is power here in Tropical Malady, in emotion and in the commanding visuals, and the seeker’s fear and hunger are made palpable. Lomnoi is onscreen constantly in this mystical darkness, his performance captivating viewers who have stayed past the first hour and so sensed something primitive, perhaps essential, though exactly what that something may be remains beyond expression.
(Released by Strand Releasing; not rated by MPAA.)