Tropical Malady was the title under which the artist and filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s 2004 feature was distributed in the UK and elsewhere. Its original Thai title, Sud Pralad, in fact means something like ‘strange beast’. This is perhaps a more apt characterisation of a film that compels through fierce natural strangeness rather than intimations of illness per se. More is going on here in terms of story, sense perception, sexuality, identity and spirituality than is easily accessible to mainstream sensibilities. But if that speaks to malady, it seems less a matter of infection or disease than the disordered expectation that the world will constrain itself to conventionally limited and contingent ways of thinking, feeling and understanding. Strange beasts are best met on their own ground, on their own terms.
The film is a diptych of sorts. The first part introduces us to soldier Keng (Banlop Lomnoi), part of a group assigned to a rural area where unsettling killings of animals have been noted, perhaps the work of an unquiet spirit – the strange beast. There, Keng meets Tong (Sakda Kaewbuadee), a placid-seeming young man with whom he strikes up a flirtatious rapport. They spend time together in town and country, at the movies, taking a dog to the vet, exploring nearby shrines. In the second part, Keng is in the forest, alone, tracking and being tracked by the strange spirit, who seems to be at once Tong and a tiger. There are stalkings, struggles and submissions, encounters with ghost cows and clever monkeys. In both parts, transportive sound design and locked-off compositions frame interpersonal dynamics that tilt in unexpected ways. Queerness here is not only a matter of same-sex desire but of radical uncertainty, shifts between persons and worlds.
It’s a work that defies straightforward understanding and suggests that understandability may be overrated. (Benedict Anderson has argued that aspects of narrative, setting and character unfamiliar to the film’s cosmopolitan audiences are quite accessible to viewers from the region where the film was shot – yet even they were perplexed by other elements.) Apichatpong’s earlier features had won festival recognition but this was a breakthrough. In the years since, its calm indifference to staid forms of logic, hierarchy and desire have helped affirm it as a marvel of imaginative engagement with posthuman possibilities.