There aren't many movies that feature a baboon speaking, well, baboonese (there are subtitles) and a naked man crawling like a tiger through the forest, but in "Tropical Malady," borders between man and beast are effectively erased during the film's evocative dreamlike scheme.
It's as though the film's saying, "Audience, loosen up."
Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul's film is halved into distinct acts, the surreal touches coming in the latter. The first, set largely in the daylight, is about the evolving romance between two Thai men. One is Keng (Banlop Lomnoi), a forest patrol soldier; the other, Tong (Sakda Kaewbuadee), a farmer.
"When I gave you my Clash tape," Keng declares to Tong, "I forgot to give you my heart."
The reference to a Western punk band is just one telling detail in a film about Thailand's connections to its mythical past and the secular modern world.
We see, for instance, a bustling, American-style aerobics class in the middle of town. Meanwhile, out in the farming hinterland, the people know their past, remember the old stories and superstitions. And despite the encroachment of modern technology, they still believe.
The courtship between men is chaste and rather charming. There's a shyness as they exchange glances, ride a motorbike together, explore a temple's underground lair. No sooner have we settled in for a naturalistic story seemingly about the worlds of work (the forest patrol) and play (Keng's love for Tong), when a second act begins with a new title: "A Spirit's Path."
That's when Keng is dispatched into the jungles to track a mysterious beast that has been attacking and killing local livestock. But as he gets closer to his target, and catches glimpses of an apparently shape-shifting man among the trees, he comes to believe Tong may be a mythical shaman.
Suddenly, we are plunged into the Thai equivalent of a Rousseau painting, an otherworldly, enchanting garden of desire, of sensuality. All of Thailand seems cloaked in darkness, and as it moves from day to night we must squint to enter this part of the film -- it's Weerasethakul's way of forcing us to see with new eyes, to feel the movie's shift from consciousness to dream state, from literal to metaphor.
An extraordinary movie ("Tropical Malady" won the Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival in 2004), it's best enjoyed with feral senses on full alert in order to catch the sounds of the tropical jungle, the pad of the lurking tiger and even the words of that babbling baboon, who soundly advises Keng on how to get to the heart of Tong's darkness.
Like such works as Jacques Tourneur's "Cat People," or even Werner Herzog's more recent documentary "Grizzly Man," the film evolves into something deeper, a story about the atavistic wildness within people.
Tropical Malady (120 minutes, in Thai with subtitles, at the AFI Silver) is not rated; it contains nudity, sensuality and some violence.