Tropical Malady Review

If, like myself, you’ve been introduced to Apichatpong Weerasethakul through the UK DVDs released thus far, then you’ll know what to expect of Tropical Malady, the Thai director’s third solo feature. As with Blissfully Yours (released by Second Run two summers ago) and Syndromes and a Century (released by the BFI last month), this is leisurely, mysterious filmmaking, tapping into folk tales and split into two halves. The first concerns a homosexual love affair between two males, the second is less definable concoction in which a ghost/shape-shifter/tiger is pursued through the jungle by a sole hunter. The lack of definition is typical Weerasethakul; as if to press the point home he opens with a pair of visual non-sequitors and has the credits initially unfold over a knowing, smiling look to camera.

Yet Tropical Malady - in its first half, at least – is also the director’s earthiest film to date. Taking place amongst the bustle of modern urban living, as opposed to the airy locales of Syndromes and Blissfully Yours, it takes on a more perceptibly documentary tone. The screen is often full of everyday folk, occasionally caught unawares in the camera’s gaze, and the method is handheld, altogether rougher to that which we’ve experienced elsewhere. Nonetheless do not expect any dramatic departures: the love story of the first half almost wilfully shuns “movie” conventions inasmuch as there’s no story to tell, merely one to observe; and there’s still plenty of scope of Weerasethakul’s odd moment – a kitsch pop interlude, an underground shrine adorned with musical Christmas lights.

More pronounced in its refusal to bow to cinematic norms is the second half, which comes with its own credit sequence even as it shares its lead with what has come before. Reviewing Tropical Malady for Sight & Sound during its brief run at UK cinemas in 2005, Roger Clarke noted how a minor plot point resembled one from Predator, the 1980s Schwarzenegger sci-fi/action concoction. The reference is interesting insofar as it points up the genre potential for the hunter-hunted narrative, as suited to a Western or a cop thriller as it is the Arnie movie. Yet Tropical Malady simply refuses any such easy pigeon-holing. For starters the mood is incredibly calm (which prompts thoughts in the direction of whether Weerasethakul could ever create tension in the conventional sense) and once again there’s no story, as it were, to tell. The use of intertitles during this half, ones that tie the film into folk mythologies, may initially appear to be a concession to the lack of narrative, though they are better read as Weerasethakul brazenly exploiting the fact: we’re not here for plot, but mood, ideas and evocations.

I find, however, that Tropical Malady doesn’t quite get under the skin as Blissfully Yours and Syndromes and a Century had done previously. This may simply be a case of catching up with it so soon after a viewing of the latter – Weerasethakul’s finest to date and one of the undoubted cinematic highpoints of the decade thus far – but its mysteries don’t go quite so deep and the playfulness of these other two features (evident in Blissfully’s languid pacing; present throughout Syndromes). Certainly, there’s intrigue and food for thought – is the shape-shifter of the second half representative of the film as a whole? Yet in the context of Weerasethakul’s high standard, Tropical Malady feels a little minor. It’s a fine, assured work nevertheless and clearly the work of a talented filmmaker, just not the masterpiece I was hoping for. (As with my review of Syndromes and a Century, I apologise for the overly personal tone of this final paragraph, but as I stated there this is the response Weerasethakul forces from you.)

The Disc

Presentation-wise Second Run have done a pleasing job here. The film comes in its original aspect ratio, is anamorphically enhanced and has optional English subtitles. The print quality isn’t perfect – there’s moderate damage – but nothing to distract our enjoyment. It’s also slightly soft on occasion and there’s evidence of edge enhancement, but on the whole as good as, perhaps even better than, their handling of Blissfully Yours. The soundtrack, meanwhile, is the star thanks to the presence of the original DD5.1 mix alongside a two-channel option. Pretty much flawless, and making Weerasethakul’s compositions all the more involving, it’s also worth noting that this is the first of his films to get a 5.1 soundtrack on UK DVD – one being conspicuously absent from the BFI’s otherwise fine handling of Syndromes and a Century.

The special features are similarly impressive. Alongside the self-explanatory galleries of production stills and storyboards there is also room for a 10-minute interview with the director plus a DVD premiere of his 1997 black and white short Thirdworld. Despite its brief running time the chat with Weerasethakul is fascinating stuff. Second Run have also done fine work with their attendant interviews (the Karoly Makk introduction to Love, for example, is incredibly rich in detail, satisfying any immediate need for background information) and this is no exception. We get Weerasethakul’s thoughts on cinema, little titbits regarding Tropical Malady’s production and, cheekily, questions about future projects – in all three cases he has interesting, revealing things to say. Thirdworld, on the other hand, is minor but an intriguing prototype for the director’s themes and concerns: landscape, dreams, the use of diegetic sound, leisurely pacing and a lack of distinctive plot. It comes in its original 4:3 aspect ratio from a so-so source and with burnt-in subs. (The interview, incidentally, is framed at 1.78:1, anamorphically enhanced and has optional English subtitling.) But as with Worldly Desires on the BFI effort, it’s great to have these obscurer Weerasethakul efforts on disc.

Film
7 out of 10
Video
7 out of 10
Audio
8 out of 10
Extras
8 out of 10
Overall

7

out of 10

Last updated: 18/04/2018 22:36:14

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