Dir:Apichatpong Weerasethakul. Fr-Thai-It-Ger. 2004. 118mins

Deeplysubmerged within Apichatpong Weerasethakul's often impenetrable andoccasionally boring fable Tropical Malady, is a wonderful exploration of a perennialtheme: what makes a human being more than an animal' It begins promisingly witha passage from novelist Ton Nakajima: "All of us are by nature wild beasts andour duty as human beings is to become like trainers who keep their animals incheck, and even teach them to perform tasks alien to their bestiality."

Unfortunately,Weerasethakul's execution of this theme falls well short of the mark. Whilealways gorgeously photographed, and at times haunting and even profound, thefilm simply does not work on either a dramatic or emotional level. Lovers ofmore esoteric art-film fare, however, may appreciate some fascinating ifdisconcerting formal reversals that occur without warning exactly halfwaythrough the two-hour film. Overall, however, it is tough slogging indeed, andcommercial prospects appear limited, despite taking the joint Grand Jury prizeat Cannes last month.

Thefirst hour consists principally of the kind of art-film indirection that hasbecome perhaps all too familiar on the festival circuit, primarily in the formof the slow accretion of mood and of bits of information about characters inthe form of mostly unrelated, dialogue-less vignettes driven by no discernibleplot.

Thefocus is on a young soldier named Keng (Lomnoi), who is part of the junglepatrol, and his farm-boy friend Tong (Kaewbuadee). They have meals togetherwith Tong's family, ride together on Keng's motorcycle, see a movie, visit anunderground temple, play computer games, shoot pool and take Tong's dog to thevet. They listen to a middle-aged singer in a beer garden, and we too hear theentire songs, in fact, several songs.

Alongthe way, the director gives evidence of a wonderful eye for the ironies thatproliferate in contemporary Thai culture, as with the statue of the Buddha,accompanied by Western Christmas music, that they pray before.

Astheir days together proceed, the relationship between the young men begins totake a more physical form, first in the guise of horsing around in the movietheatre, when Keng strokes Tong's leg, and then in an extraordinary sceneduring which Tong liberally licks Keng's fist. The chief dramatic tensionprovided in this part of the film concerns whether or not their intimacy willprogress.

Thechief aesthetic interest here lies in Weerasethakul's gorgeous presentation ofthe Thai outback, especially in the eerie, superbly-lighted long takes. He alsodisplays a delicate penchant for punctuating his vignettes with slight zooms onperfectly composed landscapes.

Suddenly,screen and soundtrack go blank and, at the press screening at least, howls ofprotest went up from assembled critics sure that a technical malfunction hadoccurred. But it hadn't. After half a minute what appears to be a completelydifferent film begins, a film about a phantom who has occupied the body of atiger. Gradually, however, it becomes clear that this has merely been a signalthat the film we were watching has entered a new mythic/spiritual dimension.

Thesecond half of the film is then taken up by soldier Keng's excruciatinglydragged-out pursuit of this tiger/phantom through the night-time jungle. Again,the photography is brilliant and the jungle is lit with a radiance thattransports, but the dramatic effect is like a classy version of The Blair Witch Project, with 99% of thescariness removed.

Throughoutthis part of the film, animals begin to speak directly to the soldier and weare treated to what are perhaps the first subtitles in movie history to renderthe speech of a baboon. Attentive viewers will have no trouble guessing whosehuman form this phantom tiger takes, but Weerasethakul makes no attempt to linkthe two halves of the film, and we never get a clear sense of his definitiveattitude to the homosexual playfulness featured earlier.

Finally,the soldier is told that he must kill the phantom, thus freeing the imprisonedshaman's spirit, or let himself be devoured by the phantom, thus joining him.Again, all of this is accompanied by lovely shots of the night jungle, whichbecomes almost incandescent - the ghostly, superimposed shots of animal spiritsare especially ethereal - along with resonant jungle sounds, but it becomeschallenging to an audience when a full hour of a film relies virtually solelyon its visuals and sound effects.

Thevery ending of the film becomes a gorgeous, transporting fugue that brilliantlycombines transcendent poetic language, deep spirituality, glorious visuals, andsounds and music that reverberate on a profound level. For most viewers,however, this is all much too late.

Prod: Anna Sanders Films
Int'l sales:
Celluloid Dreams
Charles de Meaux
Vichit Tanapanitch, JarinPengpanitch, Jean Louis Vialard
Lee Chatametikool
Main cast:
Banlop Lomnoi SakdaKaewbuadee, Sirivech Jareonchon, Udom Promma Haui Deesom