A guy named Joe
TROPICAL MALADY (Apichatpong Weerasethakul aka “Joe,” Thailand, 7)
TROPICAL MALADY bifurcates itself into two “halves.” The first hour or so is basically a hanging out “City Symphony” movie like MAN WITH A MOVIE CAMERA or PEOPLE ON SUNDAY (though eventually two central characters do emerge); the second segment, with an all new set of credits no less, adapts an allegoricized short story involving the same two central characters, a jungle hunt, subtitled monkey-chattering and a tiger looking directly into the camera. This is a loosely structured “arty” movie, obviously. But this is where a critical distinction must be made. This film hardly has more a plot than AFTER THE DAY BEFORE, in fact it has considerably less of one, and it sometimes doesn’t make much sense. For example, is the second half a recapitulation of the first, telling the same story in a different style, or is it a narrative continuation? Either is possible; in fact the first half ends with a feeling of jealousy that could signal a “break” in the natural world and the conceit of naturalism in favor of stylized allegory (think how PERSONA “breaks” upon the shard of glass for a sense of what I mean.) But in this case, I frankly don’t care, because TROPICAL MALADY never bored me. It was so nice to look at, had so many goofy interpolations and what WAKING LIFE calls “holy moments,” that it’d be churlish to complain. The conversation between the guy in the truck and the guy on the bus; the scenes of people cutting ice; hanging out with the two ladies who ran a store; the acted-out parable of the monk and the two farmers. There’s so much to enjoy on the fly (and the characters aren’t dour-faced depressives, which helps enormously) that the fact the film doesn’t seem to hang together doesn’t matter. In fact, I hereby formulate Victor’s Art House Rule #1: “If you make a slow movie where not much happens — thou shalt keep the overall tone light, airy and silly-comic, and maketh thy shots almost delectable.” Contrary to my usual custom, I could hardly describe my reactions when the lights went up and everyone started looking at each other, saying “well, what did you think of that.” The ending is the truly gripping conversation with the heart of a tiger and I let out a breath at the closing credits, sure that I had enjoyed what I had seen at some level, but unsure of myself. But TROPICAL MALADY has stewed wonderfully in the head and I already am eager for a second look and for a first look at the other films by “Joe” (MYSTERIOUS OBJECT AT NOON and BLISSFULLY YOURS) — and there’s just no arguing with those reactions.
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