Off the Radar: Jungles, love and phantoms in ‘Tropical Malady’

Off the Radar is a weekly column surveying overlooked films available to students for free via NYU’s streaming partnerships. “Tropical Malady” available to stream on Kanopy and NYU Stream.


Aaliya Luthra

(Illustration by Aaliya Luthra)

Mick Gaw, Staff Writer

A sweltering labyrinth of flora and fauna, the jungle has often symbolized the hostile unknown in modern cinema. In the last 50 years, films centered on the American experience of the Vietnam War have contributed to a collective cinematic understanding of the tropics as a harsh environment. These films paint the jungle as a concealed and indomitable enemy, a mystic realm of nightmarish atrocities and lost innocence. However, in his 2004 film “Tropical Malady,” visionary Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul depicts the jungle battlefield in an entirely different light.

Weerasethakul, a modern master of slow cinema, still treats the jungle as a site of the unknown. But instead of highlighting the jungle as a site of inhumane brutality, Weerasethakul focuses on the tropics as a setting for the exploration of ceaseless and inexplicable spirituality. By defying narrative tradition and conventional storytelling logic, “Tropical Malady” represents cinematic escapism in one of its purest forms, one that fully engrosses the viewer in hazy constructions of reality verging on dreams. 

The film begins in a rural Thai city beset on all sides by tropical wilderness. A soldier named Keng (Banlop Lomnoi) and his unit are investigating unexplained killings of cattle in the area. While on duty, Keng befriends a man from the village named Tong (Sakda Kaewbuadee). As the pair get to know each other, they gradually develop a romantic relationship. For the first act of the film, Weerasethakul focuses on the idyllic relationship between Keng and Tong, highlighting intimate moments of prolonged stillness in their daily lives. But in the languid heat of the jungle, just as romance flourishes, it is abruptly stopped without explanation. 

Tong suddenly disappears into the darkness of the jungle. “Tropical Malady” then makes a dramatic and seemingly disjointed narrative shift. Without further explanation, the film focuses on Keng’s new mission to track down and eliminate a mystical tiger spirit that resides in the deepest corners of the jungle — a spirit who may or may not be Tong himself.

Like Weerasethakul’s more recent films “Memoria” (2021) and “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives” (2010), “Tropical Malady” is concerned with human perceptions of memory and interactions with the paranormal. Weerasethakul’s filmography occupies a liminal space between dreams and reality and, unlike similar works, refuses to spoon-feed the audience with answers as to what is real. The film’s beauty lies in its hypnotic charm, lulling the viewer into a false sense of the regular before immersing them in a surreal spiritual environment. In a time where the industry prioritizes realism and explicit references to the real world, “Tropical Malady” is a refreshing escape into an abstract dimension beyond the silver screen. 

Contact Mick Gaw at [email protected].