Monday, August 07, 2006

2005 in review: #6

6. Tropical Malady (Apichatpong Weerasethakul)

B-side: Brokeback Mountain (Ang Lee)

In my humble opinion, Apichatpong Weerasethakul (aka “Joe”) is the most fascinating filmmaker to emerge so far this century. His work isn’t about plot or character, or even mood, as much as it is about giving off a particular vibe, one that’s damn near indescribable to those who are unfamiliar with his films. TROPICAL MALADY, his best film yet, is no exception- there’s really no way to describe the movie other than to say that it produces a lulling, hypnotic effect on those who are down with what it’s doing. The story, as it were, focuses on a soldier and a townie who embark on a sweet courtship until the townie disappears into the forest. When it turns out that the shape shifting forest shaman who has been terrorizing the countryside actually be the man he loves, the soldier sets out into the forest to track him down.

As traditionally-structured as TROPICAL MALADY is mindbending, BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN became one of the year’s biggest cinematic talking points, not least among those who loudly excused themselves from actually watching it. It’s not simply that homosexuality makes many people uncomfortable- consider how long WILL & GRACE was a top-rated sitcom. Rather, it’s the film’s refusal to makes its lovers into easily-digestible gay stereotypes that put people off; that and the way it placed its tragic heroes into a Western, traditionally the manliest of genres. Shame, because the alleged controversy was kicked up over a fairly uncontroversial-feeling movie, a satisfying piece of classical Hollywood storytelling that featured a great lead performance from Heath Ledger.

“Love is a force of nature,” reads the tagline for BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN, and the same could apply to TROPICAL MALADY. Both of these films deal, of course, with homosexual relationships, although for the most part the similarities cease there. While homosexuality, coupled with a time (pre-Stonewall) and place (the West) that affords BROKEBACK’s ill-fated lovers little chance to be together, Joe’s film is matter-of-fact, almost nonchalant, about his characters’ sexuality. Unfortunately, given the tempestuous reaction to BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN (coupled, naturally, with the ongoing “defense of marriage” bile being spewed out by our current administration and its followers), the reality of Lee’s film is probably closer to our current world, and that’s really too bad. Cinema, more than almost any genre, is capable of creating empathy within its audience. If only someone could watch either (or both) of these films with an open mind for a change, perhaps that person would be less likely to persecute and condemn others who don’t share his sexual beliefs. Alas, I don’t hold out much hope for this, but were it to happen I would certainly welcome it.

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