Sunday, April 8, 2007

For those who have seen Tropical Malady


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Friday night's event at the Pacific Film Archive, in which Thai auteur Apichatpong Weerasethakul guided the audience through a screening of his 2004 Cannes prize-winner Tropical Malady, marked perhaps the first time I was thankful, with no reservations whatsoever, that a theatrical screening was being projected from a DVD rather than a 35mm print. Such a print had been shown the previous night for the benefit of those of us who wanted to soak up the richness of the film's images in their full glory, but this night was to be devoted less to pure aesthetic pleasure than to textual analysis. With Apichatpong (or "Joe", as he is often called) in front of a microphone with his hand on a remote control allowing him to pause, slow forward, or adjust the audio level at will, it was a unique chance for something like a live director's audio commentary only all the more illuminating for its flexibility. Not only did Joe provide his own personal reflections and interpretations on this famously enigmatic film at precisely opportune moments, but PFA curator Steve Seid also asked audience members to call out "stop" when we thought of a question to ask for ourselves. After putting forth a poorly-worded query fairly early in the process I found myself too shy to pursue more, but others had some very insightful questions triggering fascinating answers.

Joe made several disclosures that I'd never remembered reading in reviews or interviews (perhaps I've just read the wrong ones), or hearing in the audio commentary discussion with Chuck Stephens on the Strand DVD. Some are interesting little tidbits regarding production, while others feel right now something like world-shattering revelations that cast the film in an entirely new light. Maybe there's a bit of both in all of them. I'll share a few of them (in paraphrase), but I implore you not to read further unless you've seen Tropical Malady before. I get the sense that Joe would rather that these tidbits/revelations not interfere with anyone's first experience with this very personal film for him. a.k.a. SPOILER WARNING!!!

1. One reason why the film is credited to three directors of photography is that working with Jean-Louis Vialard (Investigations Into the Invisible World, Dans Paris) was frustrating and he was soon taken off the film. Apparently his aggressive style of persuasion did not mesh well with the Thai style of making a film (or Joe's style, anyway). Vialard was adamant that certain shots be captured just a certain way, which required very long periods of time to set up the lighting.

My reaction: Maybe Vialard ought to have read a book like this before taking on the job? I must say, however, that the one shot Joe singled out as taking Vialard particularly long to set up (a half day), the one just before the end of the film's first half, in which Tong sits up from his bed, his body bifurcated by light and shadow, is particularly beautiful and perhaps on some level the key shot in the film.

2. According to Joe, one idea he had when making Tropical Malady is that all of the male characters in the film would be gay. Not only did he express this through certain casting choices and direction of actors, but also in design details such as posters adorning the walls of his locations.

My reaction: It's impossible not to notice the unblinking acceptance of homosexuality by the characters in Tropical Malady, including Tong's family who seem completely at ease with his interest in the soldier Keng, the sisters who offer to smoke the two lovers out, and essentially everyone else in the film. And there is definitely a lot of other flirtatious behavior with other men in the film, in scenes like the one in the pool hall for example. The entire first half of the film, at least up to the point of the roadside beating, feels like it exists in some kind of utopia. (Some have found the first half of the film to be so conflict-free as to be completely unsatisfying.) But it seems Joe's unifying idea behind this utopian state is one that never occurred to me at all. Fascinating food for further thought.

3. Tropical Malady has been praised for its sound design, in which the ambient sounds of the jungle and other environments are turned way up in the mix to a highly visceral level in a theatre with a good sound system. But according to the director, in Thailand there were many complaints that in certain scenes the dialogue was not audible enough to understand. Joe admitted that he didn't really mind that Thais couldn't clearly hear certain dialogue, an example being the conversation in which Keng tells Tong, "When I gave you the Clash tape I forgot to give you my heart."

My reaction: Though it might be tempting to use this disclosure as evidence that he makes his films for subtitle-reading festival audiences without thinking of audiences from own country, I think there's reason to conclude the contrary. In his DVD commentary with Chuck Stephens, Joe makes it clear that he's a little uncomfortable about the corniness of some of this lovestruck dialogue; it seems to me that he'd almost rather the audience not be let into his characters' private moment. Perhaps the Thai version, in which the dialogue can't really be made out, better represents his authorial intention in certain scenes than a fully subtitled version does.

I'm also interested in the way Joe deals with the foregrounding and withholding of sounds because I feel like his ideas on this front are interacting with the relatively short history of sound cinema in Thailand; as far as I know, no other country's film industry experienced a longer silent film era. As I understand it, it wasn't until the 1970s that Thai films stopped being distributed without soundtracks, with local troupes of voice actors providing the film dialogue in each village, a practice often seen as a holdover from the benshi-style narration practiced throughout East Asia until sound cinema displaced it, country by country, starting in the 1930s. What this has to do with Joe's films and videos is fodder for an entirely other realm of inquiry that I hope to explore someday.

4. The shot in which Keng rests against a tree was based on an old photograph of a resting hunter that Joe particularly liked. He asked the actor to hold the same pose as that of the subject of the photograph.

My reaction: More ammunition for a reading of Joe's work as postmodernist. He's clearly interested in a dialogue with imagemakers of the past, and not just those in the motion picture field. It's a great composition, anyway.

5. When you hear the sound of dogs crying in the distance, they were inspired by Joe's appreciation of hearing the same in Abbas Kiarostami's Taste of Cherry.

My reaction: I think this is the first confirmation I've heard that Joe has definitely been influenced by Kiarostami, though it's a contention that many critics have put forth. Even in this interview, in which he's asked to react to comparisons between his work and Hou Hsiao-Hsien's, Tsai Ming-Liang's, and Kiarostami's, Joe cops to a personal connection to Hou and Tsai, but essentially punts on the question of Kiarostami.

6. The shot of the tiger staring intently at Keng at the end of the film could never have been achieved naturally; tigers just don't do that sort of thing for the camera. Actually, the image was achieved through digital compositing by the German visual effects house that also worked on the ghostly zebu and the luminous tree effects. In fact the tiger's movements have been randomized and looped.

My reaction: Watch carefully the next time you see the film, and you'll definitely notice the loop. It's a pretty cool effect.

This event has definitely been a major highlight of my cinematic year so far, and I'm now all the more hungry to finally see Syndromes and a Century at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts next weekend. It gets six showings (five evening, one matinee) Friday through Sunday. Hopefully I can make it to at least two of them.