Tropical Malady meets Mulholland Drive
By Michael Koresky
“I don’t think I got it.” A comment I heard upon exiting theaters after both Tropical Malady and Mulholland Drive. The misguided implication here is not only that there is indeed something “to get” but also that these films invite speculation on single, easily reduced meanings. Let us suppose for a minute that both David Lynch and Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul meant to leave us with one indelible impression, one purpose for their films’ existences. Take away their very specific milieux and cultural reference points, and the responses between the two films would be remarkably similar. By toying with character and even hinting teasingly at some possible narrative justification of their metatextual trickery by letting us think we have witnessed literal metaphysical character transformations, both directors appeal to a spiritual and moral plane. None of the main characters end up as they once were. Their literal corporeality has simply disappeared; they have been winnowed down to primitive truths. Through myth and indigenous folk tales (of jungle beasts, spirits, Hollywood idolatry) Lynch and Apichatpong offer people stripped of pretense, primal urges manifest in shrieks, sobs, and mewls. In recent American film, the only possible precedence for the overwhelming love story Tropical Malady could be Mulholland Drive. Both are cleaved into two sharp, distinct halves, each one both elucidating and further complicating that which came before it. Also, there is a tendency to trot out words such as “baffling” or “purposely ambiguous” for those unwilling to plunge head first into their ambidextrous ethereal gambits. Yet the fact remains that, for this viewer at least, Tropical Malady and Mulholland Drive, both forthrightly mysterious and challenging speculations on spiritual transmogrification, self-image, and explosive homosexual lust, are two of the most clear-eyed, lucid works of art over the past ten, perhaps 20 years.
Midway through Malady and about two thirds of the way through Mulholland there are almost literal ruptures in the films, narrative leaps so drastic that it takes faith and willpower for audiences to regain their footing. For Malady, the audience is left in darkness for what is no longer than ten seconds but what seems like much longer, as though subject to some sort of projector malfunction. But just as one grows restless, the screen slowly, silently brightens, gradually revealing what appears to be something like a cave drawing of a tiger. Apichatpong brings us to the point of confusion and instability, then he draws us back in with a contemplative sigh. We’re now enveloped in myth. In Mulholland Drive, all of the film’s genre trappings (as concrete mystery, as touching romance) dissolve into ether, everything that provided audiences with sure footing evaporates. A key goes into a blue pandora’s box and the film itself is sucked into its own darkness and spat back out as something malformed and bitter, the evil twin of the first half; suddenly the familiar walls of the brightly lit apartment are split apart by a violent dissolve into darkness, accompanied by a terrible rumble. “Hey pretty girl, time to wake up,” instructs “the Cowboy,” and we retreat from our moral slumber.
Lynch’s dangerous Hollywood terrain is as bafflingly alive as Apichatpong’s jungle bestiary, and both seem to exist within the world of folklore: Mulholland Drive emblazons modern sexual mores onto outmoded social customs by placing its same-sex lovers within a sort of hermetic Hollywood netherworld, a place neither now nor then, a typical Lynch hodgepodge of Fifties paraphernalia and modern-day technologies; here, the Fifties become the unattainable mythic ideal, while in Tropical Malady, the journey is also into a form of the past, yet one which springs from the ragged etchings of a Buddhist fable. Malady’s goofily lovesick male protagonists give themselves over to one another in a way that allows for a complete alteration of the body and soul. The transformative power of love becomes the main thread between these atypically Western and Eastern art works; narrative trickery is merely a means to an end.
If these are still cultural sexual taboos they are treated with loving abandon in both films’ supposed narrative proper: Tropical Malady’s handsome soldier on leave, Keng, and the moony-eyed ice-factory worker Tong are given a splendid amount of breathing space for their relationship to blossom, and almost magically, their insular Thai village barely bats an eye as they fall madly in love with each other. Similarly, Mulholland Drive’s gorgeous amnesiac “Rita,” like Tong a stranger in a strange land who descends from the hills (in this case from the Hollywood hills, where the titular road curves and swirls like Malady’s labyrinthine jungles), very gradually and almost bewitchingly opens herself up to the wide-eyed wannabe actress Betty, their mutual attraction only blossoming in small gestures and tokens until their eventual erotic encounter. Many declared upon the release of Mulholland that Lynch had never portrayed a relationship between consenting adults so tenderly, that he had finally revealed himself as a romantic. Well, the same could be said of Apichatpong’s lovely mating-dance marvel—even his prior film, 2002’s Blissfully Yours, with its drowsy, attenuated sex scenes and drifting, lush idylls of its lovers taking themselves back to natural repose, seemed a bit too focused on the corporeal to fully inhabit the realm of romantic symbiosis that Tropical Malady attains with the lightest of touches. Malady’s first half simply records its principals falling head over heels for each other—in a movie theater, their legs crossed, trapping each others’ arms in a playfully harmonious Venus flytrap; in a dark underground cave lit with Buddha statues and incense; on a rainswept backyard porch—and never once hints at the physical rupture that’s about to occur in the film. Mulholland was too easily chalked up to the old dream-vs-reality debate, and, likewise, Malady invites such speculation, yet one should resist the tempation in either case. With both films split into two pieces each of variable length, there is always the tendency to literalize one and treat the other as addendum, rather than look at the ways in which they feed off one another. Would either half exist without the other; and more importantly, would we want them to?
The sexually ravenous beings of Mulholland Drive and Tropical Malady function in worlds informed by mythologies: in the case of Apichatpong’s Eastern primordial playground, the metaphysical counterpoint to an almost neorealist depiction of an evolving relationship is a gracious fable in which a hunter must track down a tiger killing a village’s livestock who may be his transformed lover but which ends in an image of Buddhist enlightenment; while in Lynch’s very Western cautionary tale, Hollywood icons make proper substitutes for religious idolatry. In a sense both directors traffic in some very basic forms of melodrama, as Apichatpong has remarked that his attractively gushing doe-eyed lovers’ romantic exchanges are based on the forthrightly sentimental dialogue from old Thai love stories and that Thai audiences have found these moments more risible than the stoic, reverent Western audiences. Similarly Mulholland Drive’s excursion into bizarre, cardboard Hollywood tropes establishes its love story within arch, stilted mannerisms and moments of goofy Lynchian melodrama. Yet both expressions are unbearably earnest and guttural. Tong tells Keng that, along with a Clash mix tape, he wants to give him his heart, a moment remarkable for its purity and longing; Tong puts his head in Keng’s lap as they smile at each other so broadly it seems their faces will freeze in permanent bliss. Likewise, the first sexual encounter between Betty and “Rita,” couched in male-gaze fantasies yet played out in delicately tentative catharsis, is an expression of love so simple and direct (Betty’s Naomi Watts, surprising even herself: “I’m in love with you”) it skirts embarrassment. Both films run the risk of alienating their audiences through such purity, and as a result both films suddenly break apart.
The cynic could attribute this to something less than genuine, in that either film could be construed as distrustful of homosexual love, keeping emotional distance by couching its same-sex couples in layers of sexual identity politics, rupturing the celluloid and transforming its characters into walking metaphors for ruminations on primitivism. Yet the films’ headiness doesn’t preclude frankness or genuine passion. Betty and “Rita” make love; Tong and Keng nibble and lick each others’ hands. Both erotic gestures are followed by similar imagery and subsequent narrative fission—after “Rita” opens the blue box, she ends up curled on the bed, followed by a series of dissolves and quakes, and then we realize that it is Betty in the same position on the bed; likewise Tong rises from his bed slowly, alone, which is followed by Keng in the exact same position. We are then invited to utter blackness, a netherworld in between the real and the unreal, before we fade back in, and suddenly the film has been overtaken by myth, usurped by fable. In both films, these repetitions, these through-the-looking-glass moments, signal the end of the justified narratives; Apichatpong and Lynch aren’t dealing with doppelgangers as much as supposing that these are two halves of the same person.
All that’s left is that one of the characters (Betty, who is now Diane; Keng, who is now only known as “the hunter”) must try to retain his/her other, who is also them but who may be lost forever. While Tong has transformed into a tiger, a runaway spirit of the jungle unburdened by human ownership, “Rita” has metamorphosed into Camilla, a self-centered gorgeous Hollywood starlet unable to give herself completely to Diane. The hunter has become desperate, searching day and night through thickets and vines and the deepest recesses of the forests to locate his elusive lover (to reunite? to punish?); Diane has grown horrifically jealous and soul-deadened, her eyes blearing out during bouts of violent masturbation, all the while trying to win back Camilla. It’s only here that we realize a sudden rawness that wasn’t there before; this is an alternate vision of a world in which persona is malleable, the actresses become interchangeable headshots, their souls are damned to a hellish afterlife of facades. Perhaps the prior section of the film was the idealized vision, the dream-world unreality of perfect symbiotic love, the pure myth. Malady moves backwards, then, from the actuality into the myth. Yet Apichatpong complicates things by presenting love as more attainable in the real world, in which it is more of a phantom. Similarly, Camilla is herself a phantom, appearing and disappearing within disorienting cuts and off-center framing, a being as equally cunning and predatory as the tiger-ghost for which the soldier tirelessly hunts.
Like in his first film, Mysterious Object at Noon, Apichatpong’s anthropological approach becomes intertwined with mythology and fantasy. That film’s wide-ranging exquisite corpse structure, which listened to and reappropriated the stories (true and invented) of the denizens of a small village outside Bangkok, was a revelation. Mysterious Object precurses Malady in its ability to locate the magic in the everyday by digressing from its narrative strain; the earlier film proves that Apichatpong doesn’t mean to create two separate and distinct narratives, his artistic philosophy expresses the inherent fabulist backbone to all works of art. In a sense, the so-called realist half of Malady exists in a world so casually loving and warm, so populated with people in tune with the beating of their own hearts, that its lackadaisical forward motion becomes nearly surreal. Once the film sharply segues into its fable portion, although it features a transformed man-tiger, talking primates, and a slew of surreally incandescent fireflies, an authentic hush falls, there’s a gravity and depth to the jungle that seems less romanticized than simply offered to the viewer as a representation of a timeless place. The quiet of the jungle is nearly overwhelming; for long passages of the film, we're treated to nothing more than the sound of crickets, the images of branches swinging, the rustle of leaves, the nearly indecipherable silhouette of a man searching for his transformed animal lover in the richest, pitchest black of night. If we take love itself to be the tropical malady of the title, then it is here, in the unearthly silence of the forest, that the sickness becomes so all-enveloping.
And in the utter darkness each filmmaker finds his greatest image of metamorphosis. For long stretches, the soldier wanders through the cruel blind nighttime of the jungle, and we’re left to make out shapes and shadows with our trammeled vision. Likewise, in Mulholland Drive Lynch offers up a darkness so terrifying it becomes a black hole of sorts, a morally ambiguous nocturnal universe. What reemerges from the darkness is not the same as what we had perceived before; the films’ boundaries have been altered and elucidated. For all their artistic reach, both films sensibly and simply ask whether true love exists. The subsequent journey to discover the truth ruptures time, space, and celluloid with equal ferocity.