Tropical Malady maintains a visual richness, but loses its way with heavy-going forays into mythology and mysticism. Perhaps the most significant thing about the film (unlike Happy Together and most gay-themed movies) is the matter-of-fact way it presents its same-sex romance. One might well wonder how realistic it would be for a soldier in the modern Bangkok military, Keng (Banlop Lomnoi), to carry on an open relationship with a farm boy, Tong (Sakda Kaewbuadee), but that is the story for the first half of the film-a slow, stately paced affair at that.
In the second half, Tropical Malady takes an unexpected turn. The object of Keng's affections disappears and the soldier begins a journey into the heart of the jungle to hunt down a tiger he believes may be his former lover. Ultimately, he finds an inner peace instead.
In his second feature-following 2002's Blissfully Yours-Apichatpong Weerasethakul displays a strength at creating memorable compositions: the man and boy speaking to each other from different vehicles in the street (with the city as a haunting, blurry backdrop); the nightclub sequence with the earnest Tong joining the professional vocalist on stage; Keng watching Tong disappear into the night for the last time; and the tiger staring directly at Keng (and the camera), daring the character (and, thus, the viewer) to consider another state of consciousness.
The director is helped greatly with his image-making by no fewer than three cinematographers: Vichit Tanapanitch, Jarin Pengpanitch and Jean Louis Vialard. The combination of documentary realism and fairy-tale fantasy is even striking at times. (Credit should also go to production designer Akekarat Homlaor.) The other cinematic elements are above average and the actors, although mostly non-professional, carry off their parts ably.
One wishes all the thoughtful, studied framing added up to something a bit more illuminating than Keng, the soldier, realizing a better place for himself than a militaristic way of life. Like Hou Hsiao-hsien and Zhang Ke Jia, two other Eastern filmmakers (from other countries), Weerasethakul shows a talent for the film form; yet, unlike his more celebrated contemporaries, he fails to make very pointed or interesting arguments about society, politics, culture, or anything else. Of course, being a formalist isn't a crime-but it might try the patience of potential viewers