Sawasdee Krab! After a slight delay of ‘technical difficulties’ I am glad to be back in the blog saddle, with apologies for missing my usual midnight deadline. I let myself get ‘pricked’ by one too many ‘prik’ this weekend so to speak with some tasty pad bai gra pao and the combination of extra, extra spicy and my morning coffee ritual was just too much for me!
I had planned to go see the movie for this review yesterday afternoon but I had a much more pressing appointment with wallowing in bed moaning and groaning and swearing if I live I’ll never utter ‘kaw gra pao phet mahk, pom chorp Thai phet, mai chorp farang phet’ again because I was pretty much ‘mai chorp’ life for a good while yesterday until I got the fire in my tummy and my tail end put out. 😉
All this week I’ve been debating what to write for this weeks blog since I have several ideas in mind but each idea depend on me finally getting off my arse to buy a scanner. My other option was write a scathing editorial on the debacle playing out on the Gulf Coast following the aftermath of Katrina since some neo-fob made the stupid comment of calling the flooding of New Orleans ‘Our tsunami’, as if there was any comparison to what happened on December 26th last year. I’m still tempted to write about that after seeing the city breakdown into total anarchy only two days after Katrina with lootings, shootings and rape. And this is America?
However you can rest assured Thailand that at least three of your countrymen are now safe. I was watching yet another newscast this morning when I saw three Asian gentlemen being rescued from the top story window of a hotel. I was surprised to see the first gentleman bow and wai his rescuers as he stepped into the boat. Oh my gosh they’re Thai!
The other good news at least for me was the answer to my blogging prayers came Friday when I opened the local Metro Express paper to see a review for a new Thai movie called Tropical Malady playing at the local AFI theatre here in DC. Done! That’s it, another blog in the bag, check please!
I read the review and immediately was intrigued. Tropical Malady is the fourth feature film conceived by director Apichatpong Weerasethakul and produced by his production company Kick the Machine. Despite so far avoiding the commercial success of other more main stream Thai films in recent release it has won a host of film awards such as the Prix du Jury, at the Cannes Film Festival in 2004. It also won the Age d’or Prize, at Cine’de’couvertes in Belgium and Grand Prize in the Tokyo Filmex in Japan that same year. The film also picked up awards as Best Film and Special Jury Prize respectively in the XX International Gay & Lesbian Film Festival in Italy and Singapore International Film Festival, this year.
As a Thai friendly and gay friendly blogger how could I resist plus I read in the reviews that the film is so unusual that you can expect half the audience to ‘get it’ and the other half to walk out!
Tropical Malady is essentially a gay love story sort of, a ghost story, maybe and an allegory, to what I am not sure, all rolled into one, well actually two, movies. It’s the story of Keng, a Thai soldier played by Banlop Lomnoi on forest patrol in a northern province of Thailand who meets Tong a simple country boy played by Sakda Kaewbuadee while Keng and his army patrol stay with Tongs family. Throughout the first half of the film Keng and Tong begin an interesting relationship which you’re never really sure is a courtship or just your typically close Thai male friendship. Eventually it is clear that Keng is in love with Tong but you just don’t know if Tong feels the same way or even notices!
I have to admit as a westerner I like my movies pretty simple and to the point. I like movies that make you think sometimes but I’m not into movies that you have to make up the story for yourself. There are scenes where Kengs feelings are achingly apparent and so, it would seem are Tongs feelings but they are never consummated at least in the sense that we are used to in your usual boy-meets-boy type movie. Tong is very much the sweet simple country boy with a self effacing and disarmingly honest manner. Keng you can tell is the lonely heart looking for the one to make him complete and before you know it you’re hoping along with Keng that Tong is the one who finally shares his lonely heart.
Earlier gay films from Thailand have all been about tolerance and accepting those that are different. ‘Iron Ladies’ did that quite successfully with comedy and Ladyboy stereotypes. ‘Beautiful Boxer’ was on the same subject of gathoeys and learning tolerance but with a more serious intent. Tropical Malady takes another look at gay relationships in modern day Thailand but from a totally different perspective in the films first half before completely jumping the track in the films second half.
The film in many scenes is sparse with dialog and instead lets the visual atmosphere soak into your brain. It’s a lush visual landscape that envelopes you and seems so real that you swear you can smell the street vendors cooking their foods or feel you’re in the crowded night bazarre or sitting at a table listening to Thai pop songs sung by a lounge act on stage. In this scene Tong the simple country boy is coaxed on stage to sing a duet and shows he has a surprisingly good voice, one of the films many small gems. During this half of the movie I was aching to be there too it felt so real and so right. As Thailand with a capital ‘T’ feels all the more like the love I want to find for my own heart.
But the direction of Keng and Tongs friendship slash courtship is so non-chalant it doesn’t faze anyone least of all Keng and Tong. There were times when they were so coy and slow going about it I just wanted to yell at the screen ‘For Pete’s Sake just kiss him already!’
The most frustratingly scene in the movie is when they are riding home one night together on a motorcycle and have to make a roadside pit stop. Keng takes Tongs hand and begins to kiss and nuzzle it in a way that is sexy and romantic. If Tong doesn’t get the hint by now theres just no hope but then he takes Kengs hand in return and does the same thing and you’re thinking yes, finally! However Tong just stops and smiles like he was just playing along with a game then he simply turns and walks away, presumably walking the rest of the way home until he disappears into the dark leaving Keng alone. This is also the last scene that they are together, at least as Tong and Keng, in the movie.
Shortly there after the movie appears to end and another one begins. Tong disappears as the villagers talk about a monster beast in the jungle preying on people and animals. In fact the movie opens with Keng’s patrol reporting a male body found near the jungle, is it connected? You just don’t know since it is only the beginning of a whole bunch of unanswered questions.
This new movie is played out like a modern Thai fable. A soldier (Keng) goes off into the jungle alone to search for a villager (Tong) who has disappeared. The soldier begins tracking the footprints of the missing villager but then makes a startling discover that the human footprints morph into tiger prints (Tong again?) There is almost no dialog in this second movie within the movie and everything is narrated by scene cards. They tell the story of a powerful shaman who has the ability to turn into animals and prowl the forest looking for prey and playing tricks on villagers.
As Keng the soldier tracks the ‘monster’ he finally comes face to face with Tong running around the jungle completely naked his body covered in exotic tattoos. You keep expecting a big scare scene to come up but it only comes close when Keng is asleep and Tong the Shama/Beast/Missing Villager discovers him and is intrigued with Kengs squawking army radio. You only jump a little when Keng wakes up and is staring face to face with Tong. They fight and you think Tong kills him by throwing him down a cliff but he’s not dead yet.
The most dialog you hear is from a talking monkey, yes a talking monkey that tells Keng he is hunting the ghost beast who is hunting him in return and that only by killing him can he free him (Tong) from the ghost world or instead become devoured and become part of Tongs ghost world.
From here on out it just gets weirder and I don’t know if I can do any justice to explaining it. Is the beast actually Kengs passion that threatens to consume him? Is this a parable of the nature of man that our story as is has not yet written? I won’t spoil the ending because frankly I don’t think I could explain it to spoil it! All I kept thinking was how this reminded me of Joseph Conrads ‘Heart of Darkness’. If you remove man from his man made habitat and return him to back to nature does he still remain man or turns back to being the beast. A thought that has crossed my mind a lot watching the news about New Orleans this week.
Leaving the theatre I was shaking my head trying to make sense of it all. I’d have to watch the movie several times to understand each nuance enough to maybe ‘get it’ completely. As I made the trip home I had more questions than answers. It may be one strange trip into the heart of one (maybe two) mans darkness (meant to mean love, maybe?) but it’s a lush visual landscape in the films first part I would love to visit time and time again.
Tom Yum Goong may steal the Thai box office thunder but Tropical Malady proves that is way more to what Thailand can offer as an independent film that shares a rare and truly unique, if not totally understood, glimpse behind the famous smile and into the real Thai heart and mind.
All I can say is, Amazing Thailand.