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Tropical Malady

Feeling brave?

Well, no matter if you are or you aren't. It's only a movie, after all. Movies can't kill you, though there are some that can return you to some semblance of life.

It's hard for me to know what you might have heard about "Tropical Malady". It's unlikely it came to your local multiplex, but it has played a number of festivals, including here in New York, and at Cannes where it won a jury prize. If you heard anything about it at all, you probably heard it was a strange and experimental film from Thailand that seems to be divided just about in half -- the first part being a more or less conventionally told love story, the second part being a mystical folk-tale. The general consensus seems to be the movie is something between a head-scratcher and a mind-blower.

Me, I had the accidental advantage of having read a while ago a terrific memoir called From the Land of Green Ghosts: A Burmese Odyssey by Pascal Khoo Thwe. It's about a young Burmese man who grew up in the jungle, found his way to the city and university, became a fan of James Joyce, lived through the rise of the Burmese military dictatorship, partially fell victim to it, then at long last escaped to Britain to become the first Burmese tribesman to attend Cambridge.

There's a lot of stuff in the early part of the book about the young man growing up in the jungle, a member of the Kayan Padaung tribe, where ghosts and spirits -- malevolent or simply mischievous -- are pretty much taken for granted. Grandmothers place their faith in them without reservation, but others seem more inclined to take their grandmother's word for it and otherwise avoid dealing with the question of ghosts too carefully -- except when they find themselves in the deep forest after sunset, of course. Who, after all, in the jungle at night, can avoid believing in ghosts?

Anyway, I think the book laid some groundwork in my head for seeing "Tropical Malady" not so much as a head-scratcher/mind-blower, but as a story that simply came out of the jungle and climbed up onto the screen. I don't want to make the typical Round Eye's mistake of thinking that everything that comes out of the East is equally inscrutable. I understand perfectly well that there are differences between Burmese and Thai cultures. Nevertheless, the "ghost belt" does seem to cover a good portion of bejungled Asia. When this movie headed off into the spirit world, I found myself remembering Green Ghosts, recalling how spirits were an accepted part of that young man's world, and so it was relatively easy for me to, what the hell, just head off into the jungle after it.

When you, more or less by luck, experience the movie that way, I think it seems much less of the "divided in half thing" that a lot of people have called it. Of course there is a distinct change in style when the movie goes into the jungle, but I experienced that more as simply a change in the story's location. In our Western terms, it's like a movie that starts out in the city, then moves to a rural location. Of course what you see and experience in the city part of the movie is different from what you see and experience in the country part, but the story is nevertheless continuous. In this case, what you experience in the real world is different from what you experience in the spirit world, but it's the same story. It's just been packed up and moved to a different location.

But I should point out that even the movie's director, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, speaks of the movie in terms of "the first section" and "the second section", so I'm not convinced that the way I experienced the movie was the way I was intended to experience it. That's on the one hand. On the other, the director himself, speaking on the DVD's commentary track, never offers authoritative explanations of what's going on. In fact, he takes delight in giving us his theories, and only his theories, of what is happening. Which is to say, I think he is happy to have me experience the movie in whatever manner I experience it. I think you can safely presume he would feel the same way with regard to however you experience it.

Which you should do, by the way. Experience it, I mean. This is a lovely, exciting, spooky, touching, inspiring work. I marvel at it. The tentative romance (between two young men) in the real world part of the film is like a memory of all those times you found yourself getting sweeter and sweeter on somebody, and all those times you felt the thrill of the other person getting sweeter and sweeter on you. There's one scene between the two guys in a quiet spot in the jungle that is like to break your heart with its corniness, but as the director says, the movie is a memory and I don't know how it is for you, but all my memories of getting sweeter and sweeter on somebody are full of corniness. They have very little of the pain I know, intellectually, was involved. What's the use of having a memory of getting sweet on somebody if you can't strip away all the pain of it? We weren't given selective memory systems for nothing, you know.

And the spirit world part of the movie is stunning, assuming you have allowed yourself to go there, of course. There are at least two moments I came upon -- that's the only way to describe how I experienced them -- that will stick with me for a very long time. Both are chilling. There I was looking at the screen, then the meaning of what I was looking at suddenly sank in, and then I quietly gasped.

Sadly, if you are an English Major like I was, this movie may tempt you to look for meaning in all the wrong places. I get the feeling that in the future "Tropical Malady" could be an unending fountain of earnest undergraduate essays on visual meanings and narrative symbolism. We are trained to do it, trained to try to understand or at least explain what this moment and that moment mean.

Resist your training. You are in the jungle now. More precisely, you are in the place where ghosts reside. Here, monkeys give you advice on love and romance. Hand-held radios continue whispering to you long after they've been crushed to bits. Fireflies stand by to assist you, and your heart -- that generally incompetent but sometimes remarkably lucky guide -- wants to take you deeper into this forest.

Go ahead. Trust it. Even though you know you shouldn't.

[Netflix, B & N, ]

Upcoming screenings:

  • 2/17-2/18, GSA Cafe Film Series, University Park, PA
  • 3/6-3/17, Belcourt Theater, Nashville, TN
  • 3/20-3/21, University of Idaho, Moscow, ID


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