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Come for the gentle rural romance, stay for the talking baboon

Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: Richard Linklater’s Boyhoodwhich chronicles its star’s literal growth from grade-schooler to college student, has us thinking back on other ambitious narrative experiments.

Tropical Malady (2004)

Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul (Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives) makes films that resemble nobody else’s, but Tropical Malady is a special case: It’s two films that resemble nobody else’s, and only metaphorically resemble each other. The first half introduces a soldier named Keng (Banlop Lomnoi), who falls in love with a shy country boy named Tong (Sakda Kaewbuadee), and appears to be a tender if slightly unconventional gay romance. Keng’s pursuit of Tong is tentative and halting, though it’s not clear whether this is because homosexuality is perceived as taboo (by either party or by Thai society as a whole) or simply because Tong is the kind of person who likes to take things agonizingly slow. The two visit an underground temple together—an eerie, mysterious location that threatens to swallow them whole—and at one point there’s some sensual fist-licking, but no actual sex takes place. The tone is lazy, the pace somnolent; it’s not clear where the film is headed, and even patient viewers may get restless.


That’s when the movie suddenly breaks down and then starts over, complete with a new opening-credit sequence that says it’s now called A Spirit’s Path. This second half, it gradually becomes clear, is a nearly wordless, animistic recapitulation of the first half, with Keng pursuing a wild animal (representing Tong) deep into the jungle. What had been prosaic suddenly turns mythic, complete with a talking baboon and other magical elements; the disjunction implicitly suggests that no amount of artful, naturalistic observation can possibly convey the turmoil lurking within the human heart. Shot in near darkness, this jungle adventure is exquisite pure cinema: beautiful, mysterious, savage, spontaneous, unforgettable. But it achieves much of its power in relation to the more conventionally affecting details of the first half. Weerasethakul would go on to win the Palme D’Or at Cannes a few years later for Uncle Boonmee, but Tropical Malady remains his most singular achievement—a bold experiment that’s truly bewitching.

Availability: Tropical Malady is available on DVD, which can be obtained from Netflix.

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