TROPICAL MALADY is in some ways a direct followup to BLISSFULLY YOURS—or its “evil twin,” to use the director’s words. In a meta touch, it opens on the corpse of a character from the previous film; more significantly, it shares its predecessor’s sharply bifurcated structure. The first section is once again set in an urban (or at least semi-urban) region of northeast Thailand, where a soldier (Banlop Lonmoi) is taken with a shy young man who works at an ice factory (Sakda Kaewbuadee, now one of Apichatpong’s most faithful collaborators). This initial half plays like a utopian vision of same-sex love. The couple’s courtship is almost disarmingly sweet and brings not the slightest disapproval from the many who witness it, including the worker’s family in the countryside.
But discordant notes occasionally surface, along with hints that the partners have different outlooks on their relationship. Before any of this can be resolved, the film suddenly restarts as a jungle-adventure story (new title: A SPIRIT’S PATH). Banlop is still a soldier, but Sakda is now a lovelorn man-tiger picking off members of the soldier’s troop.
Apichatpong disclaims attempts to find “meaning” in his films, but readily admits to their
autobiographical component; a temple visit in the first section, for example, comes almost directly from his own life, and the film grew in part out of a then-recent breakup. Though the connection between MALADY’s two parts resists explanation, both suggest different sides of the same lived experience. Even the supernatural-infused back half has the ring of emotional memory, if not quite the literal kind—an irreal confession of obsessive desire, with stunning nighttime photography and intricate sound design best savored in a theater.