Dreamtigers and the Best of Everything: "Tropical Malady" and "The World"
by Michael Joshua Rowin and Elbert Ventura, with Jeff Reichert and Travis Mackenzie Hoover
With the release of two important works from East Asian filmmakers coming so close after the completion of Reverse Shot's East-West symposium (there's more coverage on both "The World" and "Tropical Malady" there), we were left with a bit of a dilemma for this week's column: How to choose between the two? In the end, we decided that only not choosing would serve our readers best, so here we offer two takes on two films, both opening in New York this weekend, and hopefully coming to a theater near you soon.
[ indieWIRE's weekly reviews are written by critics from Reverse Shot. ]
Dreamtigers: Apichatpong Weerasethakul's "Tropical Malady"
By Michael Joshua Rowin
Working with the most basic of tales, Apichatpong Weerasethakul has in his first three films and most especially in his latest, "Tropical Malady," molded a universe of creeping wonder and forestial magic. "Blissfully Yours," his second film, announced Weerasethakul as a visionary of the Thai New Wave, albeit one already receiving arched eyebrows from nonbelievers. The first half of "Tropical Malady" might disappoint fans of "Blissfully Yours" -- and confirm the suspicions of others -- with its glacially paced love story between Keng (Banlop Lomnoi), a forest patrol soldier, and Tong (Sakda Kaewbuadee), a worker at an ice factory who lives with his parents in a remote rural area. But while not as endearingly perverse and immediately poignant as "Blissfully Yours" and the affair at the heart of that film, "Tropical Malady" rewards with a stunning interruption (announced via a fake projector malfunction) and a nearly wordless second half that places its protagonists within a Thai legend about a soldier's encounter with a mysterious man-turned-tiger who stalks his forest. Shifting gears from the quotidian to the mythical, "Tropical Malady" encourages a cinema of the entire senses. With each footstep softly crunching leaves and twigs, Keng is as much an ambient presence as he is a visual one, if not more so. Comparing his hand to the paw marks discovered in mud and the scratches left imprinted on the bark of a tree even creates a phantom experience of tactility.
How does Apichatpong achieve the impossible? His method is one of absorption, entrancing the viewer not through crass illusionism but a meticulous rendering of environment and mood. No manipulation here: Apichatpong gives us the legend and then lets our imagination do the rest, making us work with -- and fill in the blanks in between -- the rich, haunting images that might have been conceived in a dream state. The sound design deserves equal commendation: insect chirps and swaying trees envelope the viewer and simultaneously arouse fascination with the unseen. The effect could be compared to a suggestion whispered in one's ear, conjuring remembrances of primordial, childhood fears of the woods and the dark and linking them to adult concerns about love and desire.
What might have been initially considered an aimless and meandering first half then becomes illuminated by the legend. Taking advantage of actors who at times appear awkward and self-conscious in front of the camera, Apichatpong constructs a modern courtship story -- filled with picaresque seductions and hesitancies in touchingly banal locations -- that can only be consummated in the borderless realm represented by the jungle, where Keng becomes both "prey and companion" of his lover. Inhibitions fall and immediacy returns: Whereas in the first half Keng shirks from crawling through a narrow tunnel inside a cave-shrine where "only the blessed can pass," his transformation into mountain man (and beast) while lost on the trail of the tiger elevates him to that sublime level of eroticism where to be free also means giving oneself over to be devoured. It's a divine paradox from a filmmaker intrepid in moving between realism and the fantastical, society and nature, and modern form and fable.
by Jeff Reichert
What exactly is "Tropical Malady"? You may find yourself asking this as the closing credits of prodigiously gifted filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul's third film roll. For that matter, the same question might come to mind when the opening credits appear unexpectedly after the elapse of nearly 20 minutes of screen time. In trying to re-conjure the experience of watching "Tropical Malady" for the prospective viewer, a phrase from Borges comes to mind: "It was like a dream someone failed to dream." Just as dreams hit heavy with the weight of imminent decay and fade quickly upon waking, I can't help but wonder if there's a way to fully translate "Tropical Malady"'s gentle narrative throb and multitude of intangibilities with any kind of integrity even if the attempt was made as the house lights went up. And how diluted is the purity of that experience when imagined now, writing on a laptop at the kitchen table of a small Harlem apartment, worlds away from verdant glistening greens of the Thai jungle?
"Tropical Malady" is indeed a dream, but one that contemporary cinema would be far the worse for had it not been dreamt. Like Borges, Apichatpong takes mundane reality and twists it inside out, here regurgitating the hesitantly warm, episodic love story of his first segment in his second's fairy tale of brooding desire. The fade to black that cleaves "Tropical Malady" so neatly doesn't really mark a change in terrain so much as mark a shift in the means of traversing it. Call it the most fantastic cinematic mulligan in recent memory, and try to come just the slightest bit unmoored from reason as you grapple with the weight of implications. "Malady" doesn't need to be devilishly complex or gorgeously simple, it can and will be both and more all at once as befits its focus on human longing. Given that its sequences of life in the city can often feel less tangible than those of tracking a man-tiger through a moonlit forest, viewing this film too inflexibly prevents access to some of its richest rewards.
But then, does labeling "Tropical Malady" a dream really do justice to what in retrospect looks like nothing less than a conscious act of will on the part of its creator from first to last? Though the relationship between its cleaved halves may not be as easy to discern as in a Hong Sang-soo film, this should by no means indicate that "Tropical Malady" is somehow less analytical than Hong's "Ooh Soo- jung! Virgin Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors." If anything, the transformation the film undergoes only serves to deepen its examination of love and lovesickness in a fashion that may just expand and deepen the vocabulary of cinema for describing its most favorite subject. Realism's been a great tool for moviemaking, but it's never been more than that: a tool. And in the face of movies like "Tropical Malady," "Kings and Queen," and "The World" with their arsenals of the unreal at ready, maybe more filmmakers should think about freeing themselves in the fashion that these auteurs encourage their audience. To walk out of "Tropical Malady" is to leave behind one of the most affecting, befuddling, cinematic love stories in ages. That it may just be completely indescribable at the same time should be an afterthought.
[ Jeff Reichert is co-founder and editor of Reverse Shot. He is currently employed as Director of Marketing and Publicity for Magnolia Pictures. ]
The Best of Everything: Jia Zhangke's "The World"
By Elbert Ventura
Our foremost chronicler of millennial malaise and globalized discontent, Jia Zhangke has, in seven astounding years, produced an oeuvre that could easily double as a time capsule for these uncertain days. His movies chart not just the velocity of progress but question its very nature as well. Dissenting from the flat-world cheerleading of mainstream consensus, Jia hones in on the losers of what allegedly was a win-win game. At their core, his films embody the fundamental paradox of the neoliberal era: how even as borders blur, the world for many remains as vast and unattainable as ever.
In "The World," that paradox is summed up by a slogan: "See the world without leaving Beijing!" The sign hangs over Beijing's World Park, a monstrosity of a theme park that brings together knock-offs of the world's iconic landmarks -- the Taj Mahal, the Pyramids of Egypt, the Leaning Tower of Pisa -- in one kitschy expanse. The locus of the movie's welter of subplots about China's young and restless, the park is also the metaphor of a lifetime, the ultimate manifestation of the ersatz quality of modern life, and an emblem of the promise and disappointment of globalization.
Like Jia's previous movies, "The World" doesn't so much boast a plot as observe the passage of the mundane. Tao (Zhao Tao), the film's central character, is a dancer who performs in the park's elaborate musical numbers, which punctuate the film's leisurely unraveling. Her boyfriend, Taisheng (Chen Taishen), works as a park security guard, along with his cousin Erxiang (Ji Shuai). Also in the mix are Wei (Jing Jue), Tao's friend and fellow dancer, Niu (Jiang Zhongwei), Wei's possessive boyfriend, and Anna (Alla Chtcherbakova), a recent arrival from Russia whom Tao befriends. As in Jia's other films, neat arcs are eschewed for elliptical ethnography. In "Platform" and "Unknown Pleasures," his two previous films (I have yet to see "Xiao Wu," his first), the story doesn't conclude so much as peter out. Some critics have frowned upon this nonchalant attitude toward narrative involvement, but it's the only way these movies of modern aimlessness should end: out of exhaustion, immobilized by sadness.
Undoubtedly melancholic, Jia's movies nonetheless teem with life and ebullience. Evincing a Fellini-esque love for troupers, Jia sprinkles his films with all manner of performances-sideshow dance numbers, impromptu musical rehearsals, earnest pop idol mimicry. "The World" is his rowdiest movie yet. There is irrepressible joy in the backstage anarchy and polyglot camaraderie of the park's showbiz bottom-feeders. True to form, "The World" is something of a bipolar movie, exulting in pop disposability and yet ultimately let down by it.
A poet of long shots and long takes, Jia doesn't shy away from comparisons to Hou Hsiao-hsien. Perhaps a nod to that link, Jia employs composer Giong Lim, who did the original scores for Hou's "Goodbye, South, Goodbye" and "Millennium Mambo." The use of a score isn't the only break from Jia's other movies. "The World" features a more mobile camera than his previous movies, a shift announced spectacularly by the bravura opening shot in the bowels of the park's coliseum. Most radically, Jia intersperses animated sequences throughout the movie, a device no less blatant than the World Park in evoking the simulated nature of contemporary life.
Like another fourth feature from a wunderkind, Wes Anderson's "The Life Aquatic," "The World" becomes too enamored of itself -- it steeps too long in its conceit, edging toward heavy-handedness and, in its dour ending, unwelcome determinism. But it would be ridiculous to hold the making of a near-masterpiece against someone. His first movie made with government approval, "The World" may betray signs of capitulation to convention, but it's still politically resonant and formally daunting. Those long takes, impeccably choreographed and mournfully detached, capture his dreamers in the unshakeable vise of time, even as the totems of the new millennium-chirping cell phones, ubiquitous construction sites, the white noise of television-saturate their world. That tension, between the irresistible momentum of history and the stasis of dead-end lives, is one of the great subjects of this historical moment. Consider ourselves blessed that Jia Zhangke is here to record it for posterity.
[ Elbert Ventura is a Reverse Shot staff writer and is also a frequent contributor to the New Republic Online. ]
by Travis Mackenzie Hoover
In Jia Zhangke's "The World," there's a theme park unfortunately patterned after famous world landmarks; accordingly, there's a group of young and unhappy people who act in its charade, all of them trapped in an unchangingly overcast frame that renders the illusion somewhat hard to believe. The juxtaposition of a hyper-real globalized mask and the barren interior it obscures is unmistakable. But what is just as easy to note is that you're told in the opening 10 minutes everything you need to know about what's about to happen -- not only the phenomenon it will represent for the next two-hours- and-change but how much of a foregone conclusion it is. Just one look at Jia's failed Disneyland, its milling employee-victims, and its constant aesthetic murk, you hardly need to see the rest.
The consensus amongst reputable critics is that "The World" is a brilliant riposte to the economic illogic that continues to ravage China and the globe unchecked. And there's no disputing Jia's data. The park's indentured-servant denizens are credibly ill-served (i.e., oppressed) by their metaphorical surroundings: dancers and security guards alike lead lives of quiet desperation, forgotten by the punters who see the half-assed exoticism and not the exploited workforce that supports it. Hiding in plain sight are the local employees who've moved to Beijing from the provinces for a tawdry life that looks nothing like the brochure, and just below the surface are the Russian guest workers whose passports have been hijacked so they can be later reprocessed as prostitutes.
But the movie never works up to the righteous indignation that its cruelly accurate diagram warrants. Jia's doleful stylistics leave the film stunned and sluggish, leaving you painfully aware of what is coming next and feeling utterly powerless to do anything about it. Save for some strangely anomalous digital animations that are the only respite from the gloom, there's almost no variation and thus no emotional option but to submit to an aesthetic oppression that mirrors the social one. Those endless grey skies and miles of negative space ultimately break your spirit-the film is so destroyed by what it witnesses that it's become completely numb, inducing apathy instead of outrage.
One could argue that expecting dissent fireworks is a bit much to ask from Jia's highly censorious filmic milieu. But "The World" is so utterly sure of what is going to happen that it makes it seem inevitable and thus unstoppable. There is no human spark in the film that doesn't get stamped out, and no expression of emotion that isn't smothered -- not only by social forces, but by Jia's unconscious capitulation to them. And as you're being constantly cued to the inevitable destination, it's impossible to be enthusiastic about the ride over. As every scene seems to say the same thing, the same way, its final tragedy of doomed lovers seems a bit redundant: How can you care about their ultimate fate when they've been the walking dead all along?
[ Travis Mackenzie Hoover is a film writer based in Toronto, who is a contributor to Reverse Shot and has written for CinemaScope. ]