Discover more from The Reveal
#95 (tie): 'Tropical Malady': The Reveal discusses all 100 of Sight & Sound's Greatest Films of All Time
With his bifurcated story of the relationship between a soldier and a rural naif, Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul established himself as a singular, elusive talent.
On December 1st, 2022, Sight & Sound magazine published “The Greatest Films of All Time,” a poll that’s been updated every 10 years since Bicycle Thieves topped the list in 1952. It is the closest thing movies have to a canon, with each edition reflecting the evolving taste of critics and changes in the culture at large. It’s also a nice checklist of essential cinema. Over the course of many weeks, months, and (likely) years, we’re running through the ranked list in reverse order and digging into the films as deep as we can. We hope you will take this journey with us.
Tropical Malady (2004)
Dir. Apitchatpong Weerasethakul
Ranking: #95 (tie)
Previous ranking: Not ranked.
Premise: On post in a small city in rural Thailand, a soldier named Keng (Banlop Lomnoi) strikes up a friendship with a villager he meets named Tong (Sakda Kaewbuadee). Over time, that friendship gradually and tentatively develops into something more intimate, as the men drift into a romantic bond. One night, however, after a ride together on a motorcycle and a shared moment of notable strangeness and intensity, Tong simply disappears into the darkness. Not long after, the narrative takes an unexpected and wildly abstract turn.
Scott: One of the things that interests me about the Sight & Sound poll is thinking about how filmmakers might be hampered by consistency: In order for a film to be considered among the 100 greatest ever made—if my math is correct, that’s less than one film per year the medium has existed—it has to gather some critical consensus first. And I think in certain cases, that consensus can be difficult to come by. For example, it seems safe to say that Paul Thomas Anderson would rank among the most revered contemporary directors, but where are the votes going? If you guessed There Will Be Blood, you’d be closest, because it appears at #122 on the Top 250, but would you believe Magnolia (#185) is the only other PTA film on the list? I’ll personally spend the next 10 years rallying support around Phantom Thread, but along with The Master and Boogie Nights, it’s on the outside looking in.
The Reveal is a reader-supported newsletter dedicated to bringing you great essays, reviews and conversation about movies. While both free and paid subscriptions are available, please consider a paid subscription to support our long-term sustainability.
A case like Apichatpong Weerasethakul is even more perplexing to me, because not only is there a consistent excellence to his work, but a unified quality that would seem to defy consensus. If I had to guess which of his films would appear on the 2022 list, I’d have put my money on Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (#196), which won the Palme D’or in 2010 (with Tim Burton as jury chair!), after Weerasethakul had finally been firmly established as a major director, rather than a mystery that some critics had trouble solving.
Tropical Malady did win a Jury Prize at Cannes in 2004 (with Quentin Tarantino as chair, and future Memoria star Tilda Swinton presumably lending support), yet it was greeted with walk-outs and boos, which is most assuredly not an indicator of a bad film, but a sign that Weerasethakul was a taste that had yet to be acquired. His wonderful 2006 follow-up Syndromes and a Century helped solidify his reputation, but it was Uncle Boonmee, with its unforgettably strange image of a silhouetted being with red eyes, that captured wide international acclaim.
And yet here is Tropical Malady among the many films tied at #95, and though it’s hard to say definitively why it has emerged from the pack, I suspect that the relationship between Keng and Tong in the first half and its resonance as a bewitching (and graspable) gay love story might have made the difference. The two of us can do our best to unpack the second half of Tropical Malady, which has a bifurcated structure common to several of Weerasethakul’s films, but seeing the film again for the first time since reviewing in 2005, I was struck by how accessible that first part is by his standards, and the disarming sweetness and innocence that defines Keng and Tong’s relationship with each other. They are a study in opposites: Keng is the more worldly and experienced of the two, as we notice during an exchange in the movie theater bathroom with a man we presume to be a former lover.Tong is a naïve and half-literate local who’s really in the process of discovering his romantic identity. (In an early scene, Tong is shown flirting with a pretty young woman on the bus until a truck carrying Keng’s unit pulls up in the next lane.)
If there’s one locale that’s stuck with me in all of Weerasethakul’s work, it’s Tong’s shelter in the woods where two key scenes between the men take place. In the first, they dash for cover out of a rainstorm and make a trade of sorts: Keng gives Tong a mixtape featuring the Thai rock band Clash—there was a time when such tapes were the most romantic gesture a man could make—and Tong shows him an old photo of himself. His musings in response, as a soldier who knows that unnatural deaths could come quickly, include the line, “I’d hate to die without having loved.” (Olivia Wilde shared that “cryptic” quote after her Harry Styles breakup, as it happens.) In the second scene, their relationship has advanced to the point where Keng rests his head in Tong’s lap, a moment that has a gentle sensuality that feels in rhythm with the film overall. There’s just such a transporting quality to Weerasethakul’s films, which hover in this experimental narrative zone that’s unique to him.
Keith, I think you’re approaching Weerasethakul as a relative newcomer, though I’m jealous of you for seeing the 35mm of Memoria when it swung through town. (Thanks to the Toronto Film Festival, I’ve seen all of his features in a theater except Memoria and Mysterious Object at Noon, and really value that experience with him.) Were you thrown for a loop by Tropical Malady?
Keith: I am, I have to confess, late to the Weerasethakul party, though I’m glad I made it. I’m also glad I took the opportunity to see Memoria in a theater (at our beloved Music Box), both because I enjoyed it greatly and because it helped me adjust my expectations for watching Tropical Malady at home. Projected, Memoria is an immersive experience with its detail-packed frames and enveloping sound design. It’s a great argument for why the theatrical experience shouldn’t be reserved for blockbusters and what we’ll lose if we relegate certain types of films to home viewing.
Watching Memoria that way also gave me a framework for Weerasethakul’s approach to filmmaking. Barring a Weerasethakul retrospective—not out of the question, of course—I’ll most likely see his other films at home, so it’s helpful to be able to project out from the relatively meager experience of, say, an out-of-print ’00s DVD I had to track down on eBay and have an idea of what the film would be like in an ideal environment.
To answer your question about whether or not I was thrown for a loop by Tropical Malady, yes and no. No in the sense that I didn’t find watching it an off-putting experience, quite the opposite. But yes in the sense this is a baffling movie that resists any easy attempt to interpret it. Even the relatively (key word) straightforward first half is filled with the inexplicable, like that sensuous but strange final meeting between Keng and Tong and an earlier scene in the movie theater in which they’re doing something that seems like it ought to be sexual but doesn’t really line up with how the human anatomy works. The expressions on their faces are more pleasantly blissed-out than erotically transported.
I keep thinking about the connections between the two halves, too. Even though the pairing in the film’s second part is between a tiger shaman (Kaewbuadee) and a soldier (Lomnoi), it has a much more intense erotic charge than the first half, in which Keng is almost courtly in his treatment of Tong. It also raises questions I don’t think can be answered from the start. Is the soldier Tong pursuing Keng in some other form after the latter vanishes into the forest? The film begins with soldiers finding the body of a civilian mauled by some unknown attacker and ends with Tong overhearing villagers discussing some mysteriously mauled cattle. But it’s hard to say for sure if the second half is a direct sequel to the first or a kind of magical realist remix of the same relationship.
I’d love to hear your take on these aspects, but I don’t think Tropical Malady is a film to be “solved.” It’s elusive by nature and slips into the realm of myth even in the first half, which includes a folktale about greed in which treasuretransforms into animals. The second half takes place in a world in which the line between humanity and the animal kingdom becomes extremely thin in the middle of the jungle. My mind went to everything from Apocalypse Now to the “Hungry Like the Wolf” video, two very Western takes on the meanings of the jungle, but I think that’s apt given how much the film’s first half juxtaposes modernity and technology with the Thai hinterlands.
Do you have a grand unified theory of what’s up with this movie? Also, do you find its divided reception more understandable or less after all these years?
Scott: The divided reception is, to me, a natural consequence of a filmmaker who’s speaking in an unfamiliar film language and might have to wait a bit for others to catch on. Tropical Malady is a true “foreign” film in that way. I can’t pretend to know all the answers myself to this or any other Weerasethakul film, because they’re often so steeped in metaphysical abstraction that their meaning is obscure. The solution I’ve had, since seeing Blissfully Yours at TIFF in 2002, is to intuit my way through his work rather than sweat over the details. It’s no use getting frustrated over spiritual themes and symbols that aren’t legible to me because that would mean missing the feeling that Weerasethakul’s films are giving off. Accept the mystery, as they say.
Still, to address the question of whether the second half of Tropical Malady is a “direct sequel” of the first or a magical realist rehashing of Keng and Tong’s relationship, I tend to favor the former reading. At the time, the structural trick Weerasethakul is pulling here reminded me of the films Taiwanese director Hong Sang-soo was doing around this time, like The Power of Kangwon Province or A Virgin Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, which would run stories back with different variations and outcomes. You could argue that there’s a circular nature to Tropical Malady, too—as you have, by noting the connection between the body found by the soldiers at the beginning of the film, and villagers later talking about a “monster” devouring cattle—but, to me, I think the intensity of the connection between Keng and Tong becomes so overwhelming at the end of the first half that it takes another form in the second.
The transitional moment is a long time coming, as Tong’s inexperience leads to a reticence in moving the relationship forward physically. You note that odd encounter at the movie theater, when Keng puts a hand on Tong’s leg and Tong crosses over it with his other leg—which has the effect of simultaneously affirming and limiting the move. (This is not the “popcorn box” in Diner, or the cruising site of Goodbye, Dragon Inn.) I’ve seen some critics talk about the first half as deliberately mundane, but I found it merely deliberate, a patient rendering of a relationship that gains an erotic charge. At the point where the characters’ “animal” natures come out, and they appear to be grooming each other like jungle cats, the film breaks down and we get the second narrative. To me, it’s as simple as Tong disappearing into the darkness and Keng eventually following him there.
Though this theory has the rather enormous flaw of Keng not seeming to have any memory of what had happened previously as he enters the jungle. But it does feel like a continued progression anyway— a literally consuming desire, a reversion to our animal natures. It also reverses the dynamic between the two men from the first half: Now it’s Keng seeming tentative and scared as he makes his way into the darkness, and Tong is playing the aggressor, a tiger ghost stalking his prey and even dominating it when things get physical. There’s a few lines that really stand out for me, though, when Keng encounters the monkey that starts talking to him about the tiger that’s stalking him: “His spirit is starving and lonesome. I see you are his prey and his companion. He can smell you from mountains away. And soon you will feel the same.”
Isn’t that kind of romantic? This idea of a lover as companion and prey? This promise of souls being merged in this world or the next? Does anything else stand out for you here, Keith? I have some other favorite moments from the film I’d like to share, but let’s hear from you first.
Keith: Memoria is, in many respects, a film about sound, but the same could be said of Tropical Malady, too, couldn’t it? Every scene is finely attuned to the ambient noise of its environment, from the sound of crickets in the jungle to the rain hitting the roof as Tong and Keng sit outside to the piercing sound of the saw used to cut ice. (I was trying to figure out how many fingers I’d have left if that was my job.) That attention feels especially important when the dialogue all but drops away in the second half of the film. The characters largely abandon language but the film’s soundtrack is as important as ever.
As for my own favorite scene, I was especially taken with the descent into the cave containing the shrine, a piece of folk art surrounded by candles and accompanied by the sound of tinny, electronic Christmas carols. It’s a striking image and it’s funny when you realize that for some reason “Deck the Halls” is essential to this rural sanctum sanctorum. But it also speaks to something central to the film: this idea that the natural world and basic instincts and spirituality will find ways to reassert themselves despite the creeping growth of modernity and humanity’s attempts to obscure them. They’re just out there waiting in the dark to claim us, and maybe we want that. Or maybe we just want a kind of love that channels that energy.
Or maybe not. Like I said, it’s an elusive movie and I think you’re onto something in going with the feeling of it rather than trying too hard to assign meaning to every element. Scott, what are your favorite moments?
Scott: We haven’t talked about the dog, have we? I love that entire stretch of the film, when Keng and Tong find the sick dog and take it to the veterinarian, though not before we get a moment where the dog is perched next to Tong on a hammock, suggesting an instant bond. When they take it to the vet, the doctors tell them the dog is old and riddled with cancer, and that it would take a surgery just to fathom the extent of the cancer, much less treat it with chemotherapy. Still, Tong signs the papers giving consent for a procedure, and his difficulty reading leads to a nice moment where Keng helps him out. We never return to the dog again, but it establishes Tong’s fundamental sweetness and it’s an early indication of the intimacy growing between the two men.
I also loved the accumulation of small moments in the city itself: The half-scene where Tong is playing a first-person shooter game in an internet cafe and gives the old guy next to him advice on reloading ammo; the sequence where Tong takes the stage and performs a country duet with an older woman; the startling violence that breaks out of the road as Keng passes on his motorcycle and a man is being kicked on the ground by multiple assailants. Even those shots of Tong at work at the ice factory hold a certain fascination. It’s so rare that films pause and take an interest in how people live. There’s a dimensional fullness of it, supported by the soundtrack, that made me think of the great Lucrecia Martel film from a few years earlier, La Ciénaga.
And how about the tantalizing thought that Weerasethakul’s films all take place in the same universe, the WCU? Surely I can’t be the only one who sat up and pointed like Leo DiCaprio in Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood when Tong mentions his uncle who can recall past lives? It would be six years and two films later until Weerasethakul filmed Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall Past Lives, but he was planning for it already, and there are obviously strong parallels between the ghost tiger (and ghost cow) in Tropical Malady and the mysterious red-eyed silhouette in the later film. The jungle is a strange and magical place.
In the end, Tropical Malady leads to the graphically striking image of Keng kneeling below the mighty tiger on a tree branch, offering himself in sacrifice. “Monster,” he says. “I give you my spirit, my flesh and my memories. Every drop of blood sings our song. A song of happiness.” That’s the last we see of anyone. We’re left with the rustling of trees. Maybe we’ve witnessed a death. Maybe these men have moved into the spirit realm. But they seem to be getting there together. There’s something romantic about that.
Next up: Once Upon a Time in the West.