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The Malady Lingers On: Banlop Lomnoi takes five in 'Tropical Malady.'

Truly, 'Malady,' Deeply

'Tropical Malady,' a gay romance from Thailand, ventures into unexplored territory

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

UP-AND-COMING Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Tropical Malady has caused as much hostility among the critical community as any film since Abbas Kiarostami's Taste of Cherry (1997). Some consider it a masterpiece, while others consider it an infuriating mess. Moviegoers are urged to ignore the latter group. Tropical Malady begins simply as it delicately depicts the awkward romance budding between a soldier, Keng (Banlop Lomnoi), and a country boy, Tong (Sakda Kaewbuadee). Weerasethakul, who earned a master's degree in film from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, crafts the film's first half as beautifully as any Hollywood romance. Keng and Tong explore a mysterious cave together and playfully fondle each other's legs at the movies.

But eventually, Keng must go back on duty. He enters the jungle, ostensibly on a mission to seek out and destroy a beast that has been killing livestock. But soon, this leg of the journey turns into a fable about a soldier hunting down a tiger spirit (also played by Kaewbuadee), the two engaging in virtually the same love dance that the boys performed in real life in the film's first half. Tropical Malady never returns to reality, and the second half contains almost no dialogue. The soldier, spending most of his time crouching or sleeping in the brush, knows that he is being followed by the lonely tiger spirit, but doesn't know exactly how to react. Should he kill it, follow it or join it?

It's easier to understand, or at least anticipate, Tropical Malady if you've seen Weerasethakul's extraordinary debut feature, Mysterious Object at Noon (2000, available on DVD from Plexifilm). In it, Weerasethakul travels around Thailand asking participants from all walks to life to continue the thread of a story begun by previous participants. The story—about a teacher, her student and a mysterious boy and has magic powers—goes all over the place and yet grasps firmly to a skewed, specific logic. It may help to view the two halves of Tropical Malady as two sides of the same story, one realistic, relaxed and almost unspoken, and the other more direct and fierce, and yet less dependent on the boundaries of reality or the embarrassing judgments of society. Additionally, it's interesting to note that the lovers never consummate their relationship sexually. The first half leaves off with a tantalizing hand lick and nothing more. The second half could also be seen as an attempt to metaphorically depict the long-awaited sex, or at least the emotional turmoil behind it.

Ultimately, like Mulholland Drive, almost any interpretation is up for grabs. Hollywood studios are complaining that this year's summer box-office receipts are way down, and for my money it's because there aren't more films like Tropical Malady. Rather than a preordained package whose contents are completely unsurprising, this new film is a mad puzzle, given as a gift from someone who recognizes his audience as thinking, feeling beings.

Tropical Malady (Unrated; 118 min.), directed and written by Apichatpong Weerasethakul and starring Banlop Lomnoi and Sakda Kaewbuadee, opens Aug. 5 at selected theaters.

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From the July 27-August 2, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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