by Brian Bergen-Aurand
Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s 2004 Tropical Malady (Sud pralad) is a film that essays much of what concerns those of us who work at the intersection of Film Studies and Body Studies. In Tropical Malady a young soldier, Keng (Banlop Lomnoi), falls in love with a young man from the country, Tong (Sadka Kaewbuadee).
Through the first half of the movie, we watch their relationship develop around simple, well-lighted meetings in town, sharing and trading everyday objects, the singing of Thai pop songs, and small gestures and embraces that navigate among their passions, their uncertainties, and their bodies. At one point the two enjoy a quiet moment sitting on a sala in the forest. Keng asks Tong if he can rest his head in his lap. Tong says, “No…” Keng is disappointed and pulls away. Tong continues by explaining he was about to say “No problem,” but he hesitated. As Keng rests his head in Tong’s lap, he tells Tong that when he gave him that Clash cassette, he forgot also to give Tong his heart, so now he is sending it to him. He reaches to touch Tong’s shoulder. After a moment, Tong says he can feel Keng’s heart arriving. Soon, a woman appears and asks if they want to buy flowers. In another scene, we see the two young men watching a movie in a theater.
We never see the images they are watching but hear the soundtrack while the camera cuts between different views of the theater audience. As Keng and Tong begin to relax and enjoy the film, Keng puts his hand on Tong’s knee and begins to slide his hand up his inner thigh. Tong responds by trapping Keng’s hand between his knees. They laugh quietly as they tussle erotically until Tong puts his arm around Keng’s shoulders and Keng grabs his hand. The scene cuts to Tong in the men’s room, flirting with another man. In a third scene, Keng watches Tong urinate on the side of the road, and when Tong walks back to him, Keng grabs his hand and begins smelling and kissing it. Tong protests that he has not washed his hands, but Keng continues. Then, Tong takes Keng’s hand and begins kissing and licking it. He stops, lets Keng’s hand fall, smiles, turns, and walks away. The film never simplifies their relationship but continually depicts their difficult negotiation of their corporeality and their desire.
Then, at the half-way point, Tropical Malady “drifts” through a minute-long fade to black from this difficult courtship tale to a more fantastic look at the entangled relation between the separate but mutually constituting material and immaterial aspects of embodiment. In “Spirit’s Path,” the title of the second half of the film, the soldier (Banlop Lomnoi) pursues the shaman/tiger (Sadka Kaewbuadee) who has been killing cows and terrorizing local farmers. [We are never quite certain if these two characters are or are not Keng and Tong again, but the two stories reflexively comment upon one another.]
As the soldier struggles to catch the tiger/spirit, he loses communication with headquarters, runs out of provisions, and becomes evermore frustrated and agitated. Eventually, as the film further explores the relation between bodies, thoughts, emotions, and drives in more poetic ways, a baboon approaches the soldier and speaks to him. The baboon cautions the solider that he does not understand the complexity of his relation with the shaman/tiger, who considers the soldier his “companion” and his “prey.” When the soldier and the tiger/spirit meet, they attack one another. The shaman/tiger wins, steals the soldier’s rucksack, and rolls him down the side of a hill. At the bottom of the slope, the soldier grabs his rifle again and points it at “the monster” but does not fire. A short time later, the soldier mistakenly shoots a cow. As he watches, the ghost of the cow rises from the corpse and walks into the jungle. The solder gestures toward the spectre and mutters, “Wait.” Earlier the baboon had told the soldier there are two outcomes possible in this situation. If the soldier kills the tiger/shaman, the soldier will free him. If the soldier lets the shaman/tiger eat him, the soldier will join him. One night, as the solider becomes more frenzied, he begins to crawl through the jungle, thrashing at the underbrush and rolling in the dirt and leaves. He stops and shines his flashlight. On a tree branch above him, he sees the tiger/spirit. They stare at one another. The soldier brandishes his knife. The spirit/tiger speaks to him:
And now…. I see myself here. My mother. My father. Fear. Sadness. It was all so real…so real that…they brought me to life. Once I’ve devoured your soul, we are neither animal nor human. Stop breathing. I miss you…soldier.
The camera pans the dark jungle and cuts to a drawn image of a tiger in a tree, his exceptionally long tongue reaching to a soldier on the ground below him. We hear the soldier’s voice on the soundtrack: “Monster, I give you my spirit, my flesh, and my memories.” The film cuts to a close-up of the soldier’s face. Tears stream down his cheeks. The voiceover continues, “Every drop of my blood sings our song. A song of happiness.” The film cuts to a shot of trees blown in the wind. “There…. Do you hear it?” asks the soldier’s voice.
Yet, crucially, Tropical Malady is not about embodiment and the cinema. It essays the very contact zone where we touch the cinema and the cinema touches us. As Jihoon Kim perceptively notes in his contribution to Global Art Cinema (Oxford, 2010), encountering Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s films means encountering an immersive space. It means to become engrossed in the films, in their affective duration, their dilation of time, their spatial dynamics that maintain our awareness of screen time. The films follow the rhythms of bodies—not the rhythms of narratives, shots, or cuts—so that we do not so much watch or listen to them as experience their effects. I would add, Apichatpong’s films, especially Tropical Malady, draw us into its mythology by detaching memory from individual characters or situations and provoking us to relive them, even if we never experienced them in the first place. Ultimately, thinking through such encounters is what we talk about when we talk about the intersection between Cinema Studies and Body Studies, a concern with cinematic affects, maladies, monsters, and memories, with spirit and flesh.