Tropical Malady

"All of us are by nature wild beasts. We must be like animal trainers and teach ourselves tricks alien to our bestiality." Cutting-edge Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul uses this quote from the novelist Ton Nakajima to introduce his entrancing third feature. Just how appropriate this epigram actually is, however, doesn't become apparent until a surprising...read more

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Reviewed by Ken Fox
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"All of us are by nature wild beasts. We must be like animal trainers and teach ourselves tricks alien to our bestiality." Cutting-edge Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul uses this quote from the novelist Ton Nakajima to introduce his entrancing third feature. Just how appropriate this epigram actually is, however, doesn't become apparent until a surprising development midway through the film, when the line between man and beast begins to blur. Keng (Banlop Lomnoi), a good-looking young soldier, first meets Ton (Sakda Kaewbuadee) when his unit stops off to rest at Ton's family's home on the edge of the jungle. Once a soldier himself, Ton now works for a Bangkok icemaker who tells him that if Ton learns how to drive a truck, he can start making deliveries instead of sawing and shaving massive slabs of ice. The lonely Keng offers to teach him, then invites him for a day out in the city. Together, Keng and Ton explore an underground cave temple with a woman who compares love to that deadly jungle malady, malaria, and their friendship soon blossoms into romance. Late one night, however, after a particularly erotic encounter on a darkened road, Ton turns away and disappears into the night, never to be seen again. Despondent over his missing lover, Keng broods in Ton's room while the villagers discuss the mysterious rash cattle disappearances, and the distinct possibility that a monster is prowling the jungle. It's here that Weerasethakul makes a bold break with narrative conventions to tell the story of Khmer shaman who could turn himself into any number of creatures, but became trapped in the shape of a tiger. Each night he would roam the thick forests, hunting villagers and preying their livestock. When we next see Keng, he's back alone on forest patrol when he notices blood-spattered leaves and catches a glimpse of a naked man darting through the trees just before a chilling howl — something half-human, half-bestial — breaks the jungle stillness. Is Keng suffering from delusions brought on by malaria or lovesickness? Or is something even more out of the ordinary afoot? It's as if Weearsethakul needed to switch narrative modes in order to take this otherwise realistic tale of erotic obsession any further, and why shouldn't he? The idea that myth and folklore must be contained within the narrow confines of horror, fantasy or sci-fi movies is a purely western idea. This willingness to turn to his own Thai traditions is one reason why Weearsethakul is such an exciting director, a filmmaker rightfully at the forefront of what some are already calling the "Thai New Wave."

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