But in some ways their love story is incidental, because Weerasethakul is just as interested in showing snippets of random life, set-ups with no pay-off. Tong searches fruitlessly for a job, a quest hampered by his social awkwardness and illiteracy. He adopts a stray dog, takes it to the vet, where he finds out it has cancer. The vet offers him different treatment options, though we're never told his decision. In the film's first scene, a group of Thai soldiers (a group that doesn't include Keng) find the body of a naked man. Later, the camera lingers on a young woman on a bus, sitting across from Tong, while she talks on the phone. We never see her again. How does any of this relate to what's to come?
What comes is a second half that I hesitate to even talk about. I went into this film with some knowledge of where this was going, though the synopsis provided to me by Netflix was, obviously, not entirely accurate. But if you're reading this, and you don't know anything about this film -- though Weerasethakul and this film are not entirely unknown, at least not to critics or the art-house crowd, I don't hear Tropical Malady mentioned nearly as often as Weerasethakul's more recent, and very highly praised, Syndromes and a Century -- I can't quite convince myself that I'd be doing anybody any favors by going into more detail. But then why am I even writing this?
At the end of the slightly rambling first half, Keng and Tong have just spent the day together. After a display of physical affection that leaves little doubt of what kind of relationship they have, Tong walks off into the forest. The next morning, Keng wakes up alone, and hears, outside his window, villagers discussing a rash of livestock killings. We fade out, and into part two, which even has its own, brief credit sequence. A narrator tells us a story about a shaman who was able to change into any creature he wanted. He tormented a village until he was shot, while in the shape of a tiger, by a hunter. The tiger's body was mounted in a museum, and the shaman's ghost continued to haunt the forest. And for the next hour, Keng is in that forest, on the hunt. He sees strange things, and a monkey gives him a warning. Outside of that monkey, and a bit in the last scene, there is no dialogue. We only hear jungle sounds. In the last ten minutes, the film becomes quite unnerving, and beautiful.
I've seen very few films as truly mysterious as this. A lot of films are "weird", and a lot of films don't make sense, intentionally or not. Of the latter, almost none make their lack of narrative, logical, or earthly sense a virtue. Towards the end of Tropical Malady, I was practically begging Weerasethakul to leave well enough alone. I didn't want to know anything else. I wanted to stay confused. And I did. How, precisely, these two halves fit together is something I will have to continue to puzzle over, though the film exists far more on a sensory and emotional level than it does on the level of narrative logic or cohesion. It's an experience.