Monster!: I survive through other people's memories.
Feature by: Graiwoot Chulphongsathorn
The Thai premiere of the film Tropical Malady still lingers in my mind. It was a very strange press screening because apart from the media and some of the usual people in the industry, that day was also a meeting for independent filmmakers. It was as if a reunion party of the Thai Film Foundation Short Film Competition had taken place. This gathering of seasoned indie people, especially of the same generation as Apichatpong Weerasethakul, felt like encouraging words for every filmmaker telling each one that he was not standing alone, with the declaration that the independent film industry exists. This was a day of victory for us.
Earlier, I had to contain my happiness when the question "You've watched Tropical Malady? Is it a good film?" came up because my happiness might create expectations for the person asking the question. I think that watching this film without any expectations whatsoever will allow the [experience of the] film to be as pure as possible.
This film is not good or bad because somebody gave it an award. It is good simply because of itself. An award is merely adornment and encouragement given by the judges.
At this point, as many people have seen Tropical Malady, I refuse to constrain my feelings any longer. As a lover of films, the experience of watching this film has been the greatest gift in my life. After the credits ended, I wanted to embrace the film and slowly melt into in. Momentarily, I did not exist and felt no different from the wind in the middle of the jungle at night.
Every time I close my eyes, the images of the jungle still haunt me.
The structure of Tropical Malady is divided clearly into two parts. The first part is the beginning of love and a relationship between two young men. The second is the end and a new starting point for them. Both parts seem to have no connection, but the film is made alive by the memories of each [of the parts]. It cannot live without one part or the other.
The events in Tropical Malady have no space in the world of reality. They happen in the world of memories. We cannot tell whether what we see is a dream that looks like reality or reality that looks like a dream. Usually, Apichatpong's films can be grouped with films that emphasize reality because he uses new actors, emphasizes improvisation, accentuates a realistic atmosphere and cleans up all artificiality, but at the same time, the result seems like images from a dream. His film is the territory between that which is realistic and that which is surreal.
Though Tropical Malady is clearly divided into two parts, if we look thoroughly, its structure is divided into five segments which are: (1) Overture, (2) Film number 1, (3) The connection, (4) Overture number 2, and (5) Film number 2.
The five parts intertwine to make one epic.
1. Overture: Smiles and death amid jungles and mountains
A group of rangers are having fun taking photos in the middle of a golden field at the edge of the jungle. It is normal for them to take photos with corpses. Apichatpong does not let us see the entire corpse, which makes us unable to laugh and smile with the banter between the group of rangers and the beautiful girl on the other end of the radio.
The various elements that make up this scene are emphasized in importance throughout the rest of the film, be it with the rangers, radio, courtship, innocence, photos, scenery of jungles in Thailand and the corpse.
The girl with the pretty voice on the other end [of the radio] requests for a song for her young handsome-voiced ranger. Suddenly, the song wafts in with a picture of a young man—naked—cutting across the field of golden grass.
Is it this young man who bestows death upon that corpse? Or is that corpse the body of the ranger after giving up his soul to the tiger? Or is the naked man neither the tiger nor the ranger—but rather the essence of the combination of both their souls? Or might the corpse merely be an ordinary one? Regardless of what the answer may be, this overture is the starting point of the happiness that is shadowed by suffering.
2. Film number 1: The young man's fairy tale
Despite the story in the second half of Tropical Malady presenting itself in the form of a legend, this does not mean that the first half happens in the real world—it turns out to be in the world of a traditional village fairy tale.
Keng is a well-built ranger while Tong is a villager's son who works in an ice factory. Keng and Tong have met each other many times already, but are not close (because Tong says he cannot remember Keng's name). We see Keng and Tong eyeing each other from across the rice harvest circle, under the observation of Tong's mother. The silence in the rice harvest circle ends when an elderly man tells a "ghost story" at the end of which everyone bursts out laughing at the same time. The laughter is delightful to such an extent that they probably do not know that at the end of the story, there actually is a "ghost".
Tong goes to take a shower, along with his cousin. A white dog wanders unstably around the area. Keng lies down on the cot, biting his nails. The credits begin at the same time as camera focuses on Keng's dreamy eyes. Why is he smiling? Is it because he is looking at the zinc door and listening to Tong taking a shower?
The world in the first part is a utopia of love between Keng and Tong. Their relationship is not signified as homosexual, because in their utopia there are no such discriminatory terms (and the film makes us understand this purity, such that we feel that both of them do not have any signifier other than two people in love). Keng and Tong's love does not have any obstacles whatsoever apart from each other's shyness. Tong's mother and father adore Keng as their own son-in-law. In one of the smaller scenes—that is one of the warmest in the film—Tong's mother finds a love letter while washing Tong's trousers. She gives it back to her son and puts a smile on the viewers' faces by asking "You want me to run away from Dad, isn't it?" If this were another film, we would see a broken house, a mother sobbing to the brink of death, but this is a utopia, thus those things do not happen.
Tong replies to his mother by writing something on the sheet of paper, while asking his mother whether what he wrote is correct. Apart from the charm of the gesture, the audience acknowledges that Tong is not highly educated. No one has employed Tong. Apichatpong still conveys the story of individuals at the margins of society, but in such a mysterious way that it is not immediately evident. On the surface, it may seem that it is another time in which Tong struggles with the alphabet, but in fact, beneath the stillness of Tong's face, he is frustrated and sorrowful. Only his lover sitting next to him can help him.
Tong hands Keng the form so Keng can help fill it in for him. This scene is very important for their love because while the rest of the scenes are filled with happiness, this scene portrays solace in the image of a shoulder to rest on in exhausted times.
The fairy tale begins with Tong standing at the ice factory, staring out at the pond that has a swan statue sticking out of it. Their relationship develops in the sunset over driving lessons. They go to an eating place that has replaced a high class restaurant. The sound of the song "Forest of Pleasure"—sweeter than any sound—is even more heartrending with the warm voice of Tong, which needs no mention to let us know who he is singing this song to. The old cinema is no different from a superior entertainment hall, where lovers will be lovers (eyes on the show, hands gently caressing the skin). They make love in the middle of the mountains in a way that brings a smile to the audience's lips.
Suddenly, an adorable fairy shows up in the form of Auntie Samroeng and her elder sister. Both of them are like chubby winged fairies who have flown, here to create this utopia out of Pepsi, phalli, and flowery doorways (Auntie Samruay's doorway is very flowery). Auntie Samroeng is the Cupid that takes the lovers on a tour of the jungle (walk behind Auntie Samruay and the dogs won't bite) where they go beneath the caves (which has a connection to a poisonous gas area which might be the same place where Auntie Orn in Sud Saneha [Blissfully Yours] must wear a mask).
Auntie Samruay's smile, the Auntie's sister, and the soldier that Keng meets in the toilet create a reality beyond truth, as if they are angels and fairies. After that, Keng and Tong sit eating barbecued-on-stick food as if they are eating delicacies. An army of dancercisers perform the role of dance partners in a grand ballroom (in which the leader of the dancercisers—or in another viewpoint is the person who continues the creation of paradise after Auntie Samruay—is well-acquainted with Keng, as if he has created this paradise especially for Keng).
Darkness arrives, and after Tong finishes urinating, Keng takes Tong's hand and licks and caresses it. It can be seen that feelings expressed through the touching of skin (particularly the hands) is especially emphasized beginning from the scene in the movie theatre. This physical language evokes the very first kind of communication from the era when primitiveness still existed and was the language of all living creatures. This caressing and licking of Tong's hand with Keng's mouth ends with the caressing and licking of Keng's hand with Tong's mouth. We begin to experience a strange feeling from the perspective of the caresser. Tong does not say anything, possibly because he has a message of farewell hidden in his touch. He walks into the darkness as if in a David Lynch film.
Keng rides his motorbike back with an overflowing heart. When we watch an Apichatpong film, motorbikes and skin-rubbing are often a sign of love. Similarly, the lovers in Blissfully Yours ride a motorbike and caress each others' hands. In Hua Jai Toranong (The Adventures of Iron Pussy), there are two pairs of lovers—the first are involved in motorbike riding, the second physically touch each other (in crude words, the face and the feet).
As Keng is riding his motorbike, we see Keng slightly smiling. Apart from that we know for ourselves that Keng has an overflowing heart because of the scenery and the accompanying song, beginning with the images of the electricity poles— one pole at a time—which becomes one electricity pole with many lights, which becomes a road that only has electricity poles, which becomes a market on the side of the road that is lit up with neon lights which slowly increase in number, no different from Keng's feelings—the more he thinks about it, the more he loves; the more he is loved, the happier he is.
The picture cuts to a truck filled with soldiers whose faces range from serious to somber, stressed to relaxed. Among them is Keng, who is in a rhapsody of love. The director of the images offers yet another interesting scene. The dust that bowls up from the movement of the truck looks white and soft as if they are puffy clouds. They drift along with the song used at the beginning of the film, which comes back to end the film, and the white dust plays the role of closing this heavenly utopia.
Apichatpong's visual landscaping emphasizes variety in emotion. He does not position the image at a fashioned angle. Rather he takes images of the most normal of things, but with the memories created in the earlier scenes or the atmosphere slowly built from the beginning, a very normal landscape becomes like a dream. In the first half of Tropical Malady, many innocent elements combine to create a world from Tong's house in the middle of the garden to the city that is sometimes bustling and sometimes peaceful; we go into forests, duck into caves, enter cinemas, play Counter Strike (and go inside the game of Counter Strike) and finally end with the white smoke of the truck.
The emotion of each location does not only come from the images; sound in this story is given equal importance as image. In many scenes, the sounds of the environment are recorded in such a way that they are equally loud as the sounds of the characters. When Keng and Tong enter the gazebo in the middle of the jungle to escape the rain, the audience has to (secretly) listen carefully to both of them talking amid the sound of the rain.
Many people will raise the accusation that the sound recording is so bad that they have to read the subtitles instead, but this is not the case because we do not need to clearly hear every single sentence that these characters say in order to understand the various emotions of the story. We can hear the sound of night around Tong's house that is eerie and peaceful, the sound of the city that seems chaotic in many scenes (when the pretty girl on the truck talks on the phone we can hardly understand what she is saying), the sound of advertising from the radio of the songthaew (minibus), the sound of the announcer in the shoe store, the sound of the 1-900 TV advertisement for a fortune teller, and the sound of the atmosphere that changes as if it is another world after both characters enter the cave. These sounds are a paintbrush that paints memories onto film.
In the first half, there is one scene which is considered the highlight of comic jokes. This is the scene of [TV host] Mr.Traipob's Who Wants to be a Millionaire? game show. Auntie Samroeng enters the gazebo to act as the fairy for the lovers. After unsuccessfully persuading them to buy flowers to bind the heart of the other young man, Auntie Samroeng tells the legend of the novice monk and the greedy farmer.
Keng, Tong, and the audience laugh without realizing that in a very short time, both Keng, Tong and ourselves, will become part of another legend as well.
3. Connection: His picture
The heart of Tropical Malady is memory, and the film connects the first and second parts through pictures or material that humans produce to record memories.
After a Smallroom [Editor's note: a hip record label in Thailand] type songs drift along with the rolling white dust due to the truck, the utopia of the main couple suddenly comes to a jolt. Everything is emotionally severed with the image of Tong lying on a bed and slowly waking up. Then Keng walks into Tong's room, but Tong has disappeared, leaving only creases and his body's warmth on the small bed. Tong's mother's voice is heard talking to his Dad about an animal (it is probably a cow) that got dragged away to be devoured by a monster. The villagers are in distress, and Keng picks up a photo album next to the bed and opens it. It is a picture of Tong in a boat, and a picture of him standing next to a man.
Once again, the film plays with the audiences' memories. Keng and Tong exchange photos (the audience does not see them) in the gazebo while it is raining. This photo might be the said photo. Suddenly, the film shocks the audience as the film twists out of shape and covers up certain parts of the image before it blacks out. The film leaves the audience in darkness and many think the film has been cut. However, what slowly materializes into clarity on screen is an old painting of a tiger.
In my opinion, the film presents three types of manmade material used for recording memories through juxtaposition. These are photographs, film, and the painting of the tiger, to remind us that this film (or the film that will be seen afterwards) performs its duty as a memory recorder as well.
The appearance of the tiger is a confirmation that the lover's utopia in which has mesmerized the audience for the past one hour has reached its final moments. Everything is covered up by mysterious events. The image of the tiger that comes up is frightening and dangerous, as if it is foreshadowing that the love that we have followed for almost an hour definitely has no space in the light.
At this point, the mystery and dilemma do not decrease the value of the film at all. In fact, it helps to perfect it by transforming the dignified movements as in an epic of darkness.
Apichatpong is not the first filmmaker to cut the film in the middle of the story like this. There have been many before his time, but the person I remember most is Ingmar Bergman, with his film Persona. Actually Tropical Malady and Persona are very similar in certain structural aspects. In Persona there is a separation between the first half and the second half (it is the same story, but the emotions are completely opposite to each other), by causing the film to burn in the middle of the screen. Both Tropical Malady and Persona involve the encounter between characters of the same sex. The settings in the story are merely made up to limit the boundary of the soul (in Persona, it is a house on an island; in Tropical Malady, it is the jungle), and both films conclude with both the characters combining into one.
Apart from this, however, nothing else is similar in Tropical Malady and Persona. Persona is an epic that talks about the masks of humankind, which once taken off, reveals only decay and putrefaction. Tropical Malady is an epic concerning memories, love amidst darkness, and suffering—the disease that is attached to every human life.
4. Overture number 2: The tiger in disguise
The tiger we see in this picture is not the first tiger to show up in Apichatpong's works. Tigers have turned up before in the film Dok Faa Nai Mue Marn (Mysterious Object at Noon).
Apichatpong creates art by using local raw materials. Every area on this earth has its own myths. I do not know what the translation for "myth" is, apart from it being beliefs that are created from stories and legends in that locality.
Myths in European and Asian countries are different. In Europe, there are myths about wolves; in Asia, the myths are about tigers (in some areas, it will be crocodiles). Due to this reason, each locality will have its own stories about how dangerous and frightening these two types of animals are, as well as stories about humans transforming into these two creatures (we will definitely not find stories about werewolves in Asia or tigers in Europe). I once read about a disease that had to do with humans hallucinating that they are animals. Europeans will think that they are wolves, and Asians will think that they are tigers. This disease is a good confirmation that myths are not merely legends, but they are beliefs that influence the identity of those specific locales.
Apart from the lines and letters (the fonts of which have been so appropriately chosen), another aspect which follows is a new name of the film (Spirit [or Soul]) and the cast list. These two elements are clearly responsible for stating that this is a new film. The film cuts to the ranger who is faced with the tiger who is a young woman in disguise. This is only one of the many disguises of this fiend.
If the picture of the tiger which shows up at the beginning of the second half provokes fear in the viewer, then the image of the ranger and the young woman further builds up this fear. As a boy, I would hear many ghost stories from the adults in the neighborhood. At night, if anyone calls your name, you must not answer and so on. These ghost stories are embedded in our minds, unlike the horror stories we watch on television or in cinemas (which we are sure are fictional, although we may feel shocked and scared for two to three days or until that series is no longer on air). Deep down, we believe that these ghost stories are true.
5. Film number 2: The sound of weeping in the darkness
Throughout the whole time spent watching the second half of Tropical Malady, I felt myself slowly being "possessed". In the first part, I still had my wits about me and could feel my limitations. By the middle of the film, however, my heart had drifted to the middle of the jungle, my body was not moving, I was not breathing fully yet I dared not breathe.
We see the ranger whose face looks like Keng's. We see the tiger whose face looks like Tong, but are they Keng and Tong? Surely they cannot be Keng and Tong from the previous film, but there is a connection. In the first half, Keng and Tong talk about being able to remember previous lives (Tong even says it would be good if he could remember having dozens of wives. Keng asks if he's saying this to make him jealous). I cannot say for sure whether the ranger and the tiger are rebirths, the previous life, or another world. I can only sense that both the ranger and the tiger cannot find an answer that is certain, but the instincts in their spirits call out to each other all the time.
The cinematographer and the sound designer are able to make charm, mystery, and every basic human emotion waft out from every molecule of this space. They are able to make the jungle more than a jungle—it becomes a maze for two spirits, as the title of the second segment—Spirit—tells us.
There is one thing that makes this space different for every individual, that is, memories. As noted in the beginning, the first and second half cannot live without the other. Apichatpong is able to make this jungle—which looks similar but not identical whichever way you look—seem like a mysterious image covered by a black cloth called darkness. The truth is that the mystery caused by the darkness becomes a piece of cloth that allows every unique individual to draw their imagination from personal memories or memories that were created from the first half.
I do not know what others see, but overall, seeing a ranger carrying a gun walking in the jungle makes me think back to the image of Tong playing Counter Strike. The radio that the tiger is interested in evokes the radio and the girl's voices from the beginning of the story. The ranger urinating in the jungle (and discovering the tiger's excrement) might make one think of the words said in the cave in the first half about bat's droppings and Tong's excrement. Their journey through the jungle might make one think of their first trip together except at this point, they are walking separately (or following each other's footsteps). The first time that the tiger encounters the ranger and leaves the ranger to roll down the mountain, the ranger looks at his hands (which have just touched the tiger), and the words "the ranger feels bewildered" come up [on screen].
It makes me think of all the times when Tong and Keng licked each others' hands. The image with which we can find a connection to the first half of the story is still not as violent as the image that comes up in my heart. It may come from my own life and personal memories. It is not so clear as to tell me what figure it is, but it touches my heart more than any image that I have ever seen before in the film medium. This may be the reason why some people might think that Tropical Malady talks about love. For some it may be Buddhism, for others it might be the darkness of the human psyche—a million stories are hidden within the dark shadows of the trees.
In the beginning we see the image of the ranger searching for the lost villagers, but in the next few minutes we find ourselves walking with the ranger. A strange set of rules is created as both the ranger and the tiger become both the hunter and the hunted. As the ranger slowly peels layer by layer off of his mind and comes to know the basic instincts that he has had since birth (his clothes come off piece by piece and he slowly becomes whole with nature by spreading mud on his body, hunting animals, and speaking the same language as animals). The audience is also gradually cut off from everything around them. I do not feel that I am seated in a soft chair in a cinema. It is merely my body [that is in the cinema], but my mind is slowly going deeper into the dark jungle.
The ranger is witness to the miracle that occurs before him. He is in a realm between life and death. He sees a monkey that talks, a firefly that emits radio sounds, and the spirit of the cow. The trees grow thicker and the wind builds up in intensity. The mountains and clouds which are engulfed in darkness tell us that we are nearing the core of the dark area of the human psyche.
I am witness to the purity of basic human emotion—hunger, hunting. The search is gradually cut off piece by piece, and finally only a few emotions remain in the face and breath of the ranger. These are love and fear.
My mind drifts to become one with the minds of the ranger and the tiger.
The screen gets increasingly darker. I see the ranger slowly crawling and I see the tiger slowly crawling. Sometimes I am uncertain whether it is the body of the tiger or the ranger. The darkness gradually destroys both their identities. It foretells us that soon it will not be important who it is that is crawling, because both are slowly losing their identity.
The tiger's face shows up. Both the ranger's heart and mine almost stop beating, feeling as if we have reached the end of our lives' paths.
"I see myself, mother, father, fear, and sadness. It's very much like reality, so much like reality that it makes me survive. When I eat your spirit, we will both neither be animal nor human." Someone's voice softly speaks, as if the recording has gone wrong, but in fact, the recording is made to sound like it came from the subconscious. At first I thought it was the sound of the tiger, but it might be the sound of the ranger. It is of no importance whose sound it is, because their identities are gradually fading away.
"Stop breathing. I miss you. Soldier. and every drop of my blood sings our song, a song of happiness. Listen. Can you hear it?"
The identities of the ranger, the tiger, the jungle, the wind, the sound, the light, myself, and some of the audience become whole with nature. I have journeyed to the edge of my life line. Fear and love peacefully combine, beneath the sound of the wind.
Our song makes me think of the song "Forest of Pleasure" which Tong sings to Keng. It makes me think of the song that the singer in the restaurant sweetly sings: "Without you, I will die". I think of the love song at the beginning of the story that is warm with a young man's voice. I think of The Clash cassette tape that Keng gives to Tong. Amid the wind, I hear the sound of the motorbike that they rode together so many times.
The other day I met Apichatpong. I straightforwardly asked him if he had placed the sound of the motorbike at the end of the story.
He smiled and said, "No I didn't, but it's good you heard it yourself".
Each person will see Monster! (Tropical Malady) differently.
Many people like Tropical Malady despite saying they have no idea what it's about. Many others have watched Tropical Malady more than once without the objective of creating an understanding of it, but to absorb the emotions once again. At almost every screening the audience listens to the sound of the wind blowing until the end credits finish. There are no answers to explain these occurrences, but I believe that Tropical Malady has a power to call audiences to experience their subconscious.
A normal human being has less than ten percent of consciousness. The remaining ninety percent of our subconscious is hidden [from ourselves and others]. The second half of Tropical Malady takes us into a state where we can release this hidden area in our minds without realizing it. We experience emotions we have never felt before even though they have been within us for a long, long time. It is not surprising that many people are left depressed after watching this movie. Some want to cry. Some feel tight in the chest, as if something is stuck in their throats. Some see it as enlightening, others as [evoking] happiness.
Despite not being able to find a reason, these reasons are meaningful enough to go in and experience them again.
As the ranger walks in search of the tiger, he often bends down to pick off something from his shins. It reminds me of disease—as the title tells us: Tropical Malady. Apichatpong once gave a young Burmese man a skin disease to reflect border issues between nations and borders in the hearts of humans in Blissfully Yours. The disease in Tropical Malady, however, is different.
For me, this disease is suffering. Humans are born with suffering. At the end of life's journey, the choices that this epic has given are to kill it, so as to release it from the realm of ghosts, or otherwise, allow it to eat you up so that you can enter its world. You must kill the one you love to release them from suffering, or you will be destroyed along with them without even offering them the opportunity to celebrate the happiness of becoming whole.
When you and I become whole, we have been totally destroyed.
Every life inevitably does not have life. We live because of other people's memories, and other people live because of our memories. When you and I—who lives because of you and you who lives because of me—become whole, we will not have the chance to even smile.
This epic will live forever because it will remain in my memories for eternity.
Article first appeared in the Thai-language film magazine Bioscope (Issue 31, June 2004).
It has been translated from Thai to English by Vipavinee Artpradid for Criticine