In light of Apichatpong Weerasethakul's young career, it's fitting that his beguiling, transfixing romantic fable Tropical Malady splits down the middle into two radically different halves. For three features now, beginning with his radical documentary-like debut Mysterious Object At Noon and his gorgeous pastoral reverie Blissfully Yours, Weerasethakul has operated freely between narrative and experimental traditions, worlds that are usually separated by a very thick curtain. Even the most adventurous viewers have to be willing to look at movies differently, yet it's surprisingly easy to surrender to the strange, allusive logic that guides his films, perhaps because their serene, inviting tone makes their formal challenges more acceptable. Tropical Malady may be his most confounding work to date, but at heart, it's a simple, transcendent love story about a relationship so full of feeling that it breaks from the human world and enters a mythical plane.
The film opens with a quote about man's animal nature, and as if to prove the point, it begins with soldiers out in a field, casually posing for pictures alongside what is eventually revealed to be a corpse. From there, it follows one of those soldiers, the handsome, relatively experienced Banlop Lomnoi, as he enters into a tentative courtship with Sakda Kaewbuadee, a shy country boy who radiates innocence and uncertainty. Revealed in a loosely arranged series of encounters, their relationship develops outside the machinations of conventional storytelling, which demands banter, conflict, and moony-eyed moments. The heart is a mysterious organ, Weerasethakul implies, and its desires get even more mysterious in the second half, which sets sail into pure abstraction. Given the new title A Spirit's Path, the film introduces the folk tale of a powerful shaman who could turn himself into a wild animal. It then heads into the jungle with Lomnoi, who hunts down a tiger that has been slaughtering the local livestock, but soon winds up in a cat-and-mouse game with the animal, which morphs into naked, tattooed Kaewbuadee by the light of day.
Once Lomnoi starts conversing with a baboon, Tropical Malady has detoured so far off the trail that many won't be prepared to follow it further into the darkness. At first, the two halves seem like different movies altogether, but the subtle rhymes between them gradually make it clear that they're really mirror images of each other, telling the same story of romantic pursuit and desire. The feelings that are just under the surface in the first half—excitement, fear, passion, longing—come charging forth in the second, when Lomnoi faces the scary-yet-appealing prospect of being devoured by the tiger and joining him in the spirit world. A peculiar concept, to be sure, but in Weerasethakul's assured hands, unforgettably beautiful to behold.