Tropical Malady (Apichatpong Weerasethakul/ 2004/ Thai) : the transformation of memory

here was the THAI VERSION

The story began.

Keng, a young soldier, just delivered a body in a distorted posture to a villager’s house after he and his friends had fun taking lots of photos of the body. At the villager’s house, he met Tong, former soldier and son of the householder, who now worked in the ice factory. Tong still wore military uniform seeking jobs in the town. Tong and Keng were very compatible. Later, they met again on the bus. Keng taught Tong to drive, took Tong to the cinema, the online game shop, and the restaurant, and also brought Tong’s dog to the hospital. They met Aunt Samrerng at the temple. She told them about myths, bought them Pepsi, and took them to Tesco Lotus. One day, Tong woke up, and Keng walked into Tong’s room, and accidentally saw a few photographs. The story ended this way.

Another story began.

A soldier walked into the woods. He was hunting a fierce animal that preyed on the cows of the villagers. He walked deeper and deeper into the woods and found human footprints which gradually turned into paw prints. He encountered a naked man, the tempting enemy, who chased after him in order to make him fall off the cliff. He met a speaking monkey who warned him about the fierce animal, the ghost living by memory. The ghost he must kill before being killed by it. He was alone at night in the woods, in the midst of the sounds of the mourning wanderer and the cowbell, in the midst of the returning past, as there were a mysterious spirit and a tiger yearning for his breath.

These intimately interrelated stories tied numerous incidents and reflected them through film. Mysterious relationship of many lives was presented through the village, the woods, the temple, the pond, the tiger, and the aerobic dance class. This was the ultimate reflection of the rural areas of Thailand through the eyes of Apichatpong Weerasethakul.

Within the story split into two parts, Apichatpong brought us back and forth between the line of fact and fiction. In the first half of the film, the reality of rural lives including scenery and atmosphere of the places was shown like never before seen on screen. Ordinary characters talked awkwardly about things, wandered around common places in town, or flirted with others through a love song from the cassette tape. Contrary to the second half of the film, the story was covered with the supernatural of ancient myths (through monkey-speaking subtitle on screen). At night in the woods, unknown but familiar sounds and mystery of the woods opposed to the commonness in the first half.

Conversely, the first half would probably be considered as a fiction, if we unwrapped the feature of reality. The actors looked bashful in front of the camera. The love story about homosexual reminded us of the love stories published in the consulting columns of magazines. That is, homosexual was accepted without any insult even from Tong’s parents, who knew thoroughly about the relationship between Tong and Keng. Their relationship was also accepted by Keng’s friend whom he met in the rest room at the cinema (and then at the aerobic dance class) and Aunt Samrerng. Their world in this film was a utopia of a fiction inseparable to reality. It was not surprised that many audiences thought this film was of great realistic; however, it was realistic only as a fiction. Likewise, surrounded by the supernatural sound and scenery, the second half of the film mainly focused on the isolation in the woods. This was so real that the soldier as well as the audience was frightened to the strange sound, the coldness of the nighttime, and the movement of the tiger. This film presented the situation of getting lost in the woods and confronting with a monster, while the audience could easily feel like being involved in the incident as well.

The overlap between the fiction and the fact could smoothly link both parts of film. It did not only represent the truth and the dream, but it was also the truth in the fiction and the fiction in the truth. The interaction between fact and fiction gradually became a new experience.

However, this was not new. Parody to the fiction based on fact has been Apichatpong’s style since he directed Like the Relentless Fury of the Pounding Water, Mysterious Object at Noon, or Haunted Houses. (In other words, the first half of Tropical Malady was not different from the short film “Haunted Houses”. Its screenplay adapted from Tongprakaisad ( one of the famous Thai Soapopera  ) was given to actual residents of a village to play the characters, and the filming actually took place in the village.) In the second half of the film, his style of “filming based on fiction” as shown in Mysterious Object at Noon could rarely be seen.

The first half of the film hinted the audience through “Siamese smile” of the actors who frequently turned to stare at the camera, showing that they were aware of the filming and the crew around them, such as Keng’s bashful smile at the beginning of the film, Tong’s gaze from the ice factory, the soldier Keng met at the cinema, or even Aunt Samrerng. They all apparently smiled to the audience instead of interacting with other characters. (Similarly, in Mysterious Object at Noon, the crew unexpectedly appeared on screen, while the voices of the crew intentionally emerged in the first scene of Syndromes and a Century. In the key scene of Tropical Malady, while Keng saw Tong’s photo album, the traces of ragged film suddenly appeared on screen and slowly became shielded and disappeared for a moment.) All these scenes could efficiently exemplify the style of realistic fiction. In the second half of the film, the parody was not seen. The audience could realize that this part was a film (fiction) from the beginning, as it came from the book of Noi Intanon (Thai Writer ), no need to mention about monkey, firefly, or any other things. Furthermore, both parts of the film were based on numerous short stories, myths, legends, such as the legend of tiger, the tale about a novice and two farmers. These stories were presented in brief but tied intimately to each character. In the end, however, it was just a fiction. Clearly speaking, Tropical Malady could be regarded as a film on behalf of a fiction about a monster which swallowed fact and fiction and spit out an indistinct film. However, the overlap between fact and fiction was not just a trick of the film because there was another space for collaborating them together called “memory”.

Memory is a catchword for Apichatpong (and becomes the catchword for other filmmakers who see him as their idol.). The space of memory is obscure, individual, and difficult to share with others. It is a particular space comparable to the grave of truth experienced in the past or the rose garden of a story watered with time.

As the memory embraced the story throughout the film, we could be assured that the first half was the truth and the second half was the memory of the first one. (We could interpret from the photograph that Tong might have had his lover before.) The memory of a lost love was presented through the confrontation of a man and a fierce tiger living by the memory of others.

If we look closely, we may see that this film is the remaining memory of the lost love. The first half of the film contains the splendid memory of the relationship. As the memory is beyond reality, it is not surprised that it is remembered as utopia of life. Time has destroyed all bad memories and left us only the places we hung out, the nice people we met, the moment we laughed, and the dusty air of laterite road we inhaled.

Someone once said that when love ended, some parts of our soul were gone too, and we became new. This quote appeared to be the core of the second half of the film. A young soldier encountered a tiger, a vicious ghost living by memory. He had only two choices: kill or be killed. Similarly, if we could not overcome the love pain in our memory, we would only have to let it destroy us. When love took control over us, we would change into other forms of life or new persons whose love left its marks.

Therefore, the tiger was not the lover, but the love itself. As Tong became the tiger in the second half of the film, Tong was not represented as the lover. He was the love. The ghost was tempted through voices from the soldier’s walky-talky which was used as the flirting tool for another couple (another soldier and a girl) in the first half of the film as well. Likewise, when the soldier wrestled with the ghost, he could feel a little temptation like the way Keng felt in the first half; he kissed Tong’s hand, and Tong licked his hand in return. (Truthfully, the licking scene and the fighting scene implied homoeroticism, we could see from the gesture of hands and arms representing “penis”, and the wrestling representing “strength of masculinity”.) The soldier and the ghost were drawn to each other. Love was desire. The soldier even shook the cowbell of a dead cow so that the vicious ghost would hear. Also, the ghost walked into the woods and sobbed as if it got lost from the soldier, his enemy and also his lover.

Finally, they confronted each other. The tiger was going to devour the soldier. It is sentimental that we usually let love devour us. We die in order to be born in a new body. The incident transforms into memory. What we are today has changed from other things.

The transformation appeared to be a vital point of this film. Similarly, the film transforms the memory, and love transforms people. We could see the traces left by these transformations. It started from the very first scene: the death of an anonymous man. We saw the body in a flash, as he lied down in a distorted form with only T-shirt and underwear left. Later, we saw a naked man walking alone in the field like a discarnate spirit. If it was a real spirit, it would be the first stage of human (wearing clothes) transforming into spirit, which linked to the naked ghost in the second half of the film. In Aunt Samrerng’s tale about a novice and two farmers, the farmers coveted to gold which transformed from rocks. When they went to collect more gold, all of it turned into toads.  In the legend of tiger, there was a black magician who could transfigure into animals. When transfiguration continued to the second half (The sign of transfiguration was shown in the beginning of the cave scene. Aunt Samrerng took Tong and Keng to the small entrance of a cave, the cave with a horrible myth. Tong wanted to enter into the dark cave, while Keng refused the idea. Keng in military uniform, however, finally decided to follow Tong. In the first half of the film, Aunt Samrerng once said that sometimes in the dark woods the candle light or even flashlight suddenly extinguished, and it reflected visually in the second half. Moreover, the clue about the woods also related to the song “Wanalee”(mean Forest in thai) that Tong and Keng listened in the restaurant. Tong requested this song for Keng and also sang it on stage. The lyrics “We will always be in love and be faithful, and tie our lives to the forest.” was like a prophecy, as it was similar to another song singing “I can’t live without you”.),

Tong transfigured into a vicious tiger ghost, while Keng turned into the soldier. The traces of the transformation were obvious. The soldier followed the footprints of a man who gradually transformed into a tiger. Wandering around in the woods, he also found sloughs of a kind of bugs (Later, he found another kind of bugs.), while he slowly took off his military uniform and soaked himself with mud trying to become the woods he was living in. Finally, he shook the cowbell, got down, and crawled like animals. He transformed again into animal. (He might be a cow which represented “the stage of being devoured”.) He found the remains of the dead cow and saw its spirit walking away. Then, he confronted the tiger (in another form). The transformation is the heart of the myth (It is known that Myth is the transformation of the truth through word of mouth overtime.).

However, the most interesting transformation was the one through “military uniform”.

It was obvious that Keng was a soldier, but when he took off his uniform, he would be just an ordinary man. Likewise, a friend of his would be just an aerobic dance trainer. Contrary to Tong, he was a former soldier, but he started wearing the uniform again after he had met Keng. Moreover, it appeared that wearing the uniform could help him get the job. It implied the social context in Apichatpong’s films. As Apichatpong once presented the issue about the power of doctors in Blissfully Yours, he also added the doctor scene in Tropical Malady; that was when Keng and Tong took the dog to the hospital. The doctor explained about the cancer in dogs to medical students as if he just talked about toys. He turned to Tong a couple of times for his agreement. The scene ended with Tong showing his weakness in writing which was not different from what female doctor did to Min-U in Blissfully Yours. (This issue was also extended fully in Syndromes and a Century.)

On the other hand, it was the same as transforming into the lover through clothes. (Although they were not in love yet, they certainly had a crush.) In the second half, ghost did not wear the uniform (or even some pants) anymore. The transformation from human into ghost (or animal) was similar to changing clothes, as the soldier gradually took off his uniform, coated himself with mud, and crawled like animals. He might become the dead body wearing only pants, while his spirit wandered homelessly. In the end, the military uniform might not be different from the form of tiger; they would be nothing. The new form would not remain any traces through the darkness of love. The remaining memory of our love would slowly consume us, and this could be the gist of this film.

In the last scene of the film, amidst the sound of human turning into tiger and the sound of wind, we could hear a soft sound of the car which Keng once taught Tong to drive. This beautiful time we shared was running back.

Now…stop breathing…

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