In Tash Aw’s new column Freeze Frame, he explores how his favorite masterpieces of Asian cinema have influenced him.
The story of Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Tropical Malady (2004) seems simple enough at the outset: a handsome soldier stationed in a rural community on the edge of the forest in northern Thailand meets a young village man. Their lives are by and large carefree, filled with an innocence that feels entirely fitting with the peace and splendor of the countryside around them—the tawny deciduous jungle punctuated with lakes and rolling grassland, the mountains that stretch to Laos and Myanmar in the distance. They listen to pop music, stroll around the night market in the small local town, visit cave temples, spend quiet afternoons sheltering from rainstorms in a sala overlooking a tranquil pond. They fall in love.
Though they never manage to articulate their emotions, we are left in little doubt as to how they feel about each other after an hour of slow-burn desire, during which Tong, the younger, more inexperienced of the two, begins to figure out that this new relationship is not quite the laddish one he expected it to be. Keng, the soldier, is much more direct, familiar with same-sex relationships and comfortable in his queer masculine identity. (In one of their outings to the local town, he flashes a knowing smile at the buff aerobics instructor conducting public classes in the main square, a brief half-second that carries the weight of a whole history of off-camera, off-script liaisons.) But even as he courts Tong in an almost old-fashioned, mostly nonsexual manner, it’s clear that he has never before been in such a position of vulnerability. His longing for Tong is new and unknown. At the end of one long dreamy evening together, they finally express their physical desire by kissing each other’s hands—in fact not just kissing but licking, gnawing, each almost eating the other man’s fist. As Keng rides home, the night seems magical and unending, filled with color and music.
And then, the night is over.
In the long static daytime scene that follows, we are left to figure out who is sleeping on a small bed in a sparsely decorated room in a village house. It looks like Tong, but it’s impossible to say for sure. And then the bed is empty. The young man or teenage boy is gone, and now a soldier is in the room, examining the objects in the room in a forensic manner. He looks at photographs, poring over banal snapshots of the boy’s life. It looks like Tong in the photos, and the soldier looks like Keng, but are they the same people we have come to know? The whole tone feels slightly different—we don’t know where we are, or how the current situation is linked to the blossoming love story of the two men. What has happened to them?
When I was growing up in the suburbs of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, my childhood imagination was filled with tales of the jungle. Both my parents came from families anchored in rural Malaysia and were adults before they left to find work in the city. My father’s side of the family lived in particularly remote towns in the extreme northeast of the country, and whenever we met with them they told us of life in the forest—their daily struggles, both current and historic, the harshness of life in an inhospitable landscape, and also, from time to time, the terrifying and hypnotic accounts of ghosts and legends that form the core of Southeast Asian folklore: wild beasts, real and imagined, that roamed the jungle, devouring pets and snatching small children from their parents; the spirits of women who died in pregnancy, known as pontianak, that came back to haunt (mostly male) travelers on lonely roads; shape-shifting shamans possessed by the souls of animals. Always, for me at least, these stories circled back to a single figure of fascination and fear: the tiger.
I spent my school holidays living with relatives in a small town on the edge of the jungle, and each time I went, I was filled with a mixture of familiarity and alienation. The rhythms of the family—our daily routine; our shared language, culture, and ambitions—were so much a part of my thinking that I slipped easily into rural life, even though it was so different from mine in the suburbs. But part of me never felt comfortable with the proximity to nature, which seemed perpetually threatening and even destructive. Years later, when I first traveled to Europe as an adult, I was amazed to find that people actually aspired to live in the countryside—a place of gentle, rustic pleasures, landscapes that seemed to my Southeast Asian eye extremely manicured, with hedgerows and grass verges politely demarcating the boundaries of ownership, between humans and nature. Even now, each time I find myself on a walk through tranquil northern pine forests, I can’t help but think of Asian jungles, and how they are full of things that could kill you.
One of the myths that most troubled me as a child was the legend of the were-tiger, known in Malay as harimau jadian. Of all the human/animal combinations possible, a tiger inhabiting a human’s body seemed the most dangerous, the one capable of causing the greatest havoc. Perhaps it was the cunning and strength of the tiger allied to the intelligence and vanity of humans—whatever the reason, I wasn’t the only one who feared this. I soon learned that versions of the were-tiger existed in every culture in Southeast Asia. Maybe, I thought, it was because the two were so similar. All that was beautiful in ourselves we saw mirrored in tigers. And so, too, all that was destructive.
It turns out that the soldier in the second part of Tropical Malady is tracking a tiger. Villagers have reported missing livestock and now a young man has disappeared, presumed to have been taken by the tiger roaming the surrounding forest. But as the soldier tracks the tiger deeper into the jungle and starts to succumb to exhaustion, the power of traditional mythology—folktales of tiger spirits and shape-shifters—begins to take hold of his imagination. He hears strange noises, the calls of unfamiliar animals that seem oddly human; the dense forest moves in ways that suggest it is taking on a life of its own; he becomes acutely aware of every movement of every branch. He runs out of food and resorts to trapping catfish and digging snails from the mud. He sees a naked man in a clearing, but the man is behaving like a tiger, rubbing himself on some trees as if to mark his territory with scent before loping away with an awkward gait that is neither human nor animal. The soldier thinks he must be hallucinating; we think he must be hallucinating. The man-tiger confronts and attacks him, but later we see the man-tiger wandering through the woods, sobbing; it, too, seems lost. As the inner worlds of both man and man-tiger draw closer together in their shared desperation, the world of the forest becomes dreamy and ghostlike, filled with monkeys that seem on the verge of speech and spirits that rise from dead cows—ideas of the circularity of life that Apichatpong would push to greater extremes in his Palme d’Or–winning Uncle Boonmee six years later.
In the ravishing closing scene, the soldier, on his knees from exhaustion and beginning to behave in strangely animal ways, comes face to face with the man-tiger, now in majestic, fully animal form, standing on the branch of a tree and staring straight at him. It doesn’t move but he hears its voice. The original title of the film is Satpralat, which means, literally, “monster,” and the tiger uses this name to address the soldier in a voice that is at once tender and overwhelming, that renders the human powerless. “Once I’ve devoured your soul,” it says softly, “we are neither animal nor human. Stop breathing. I miss you, soldier.” We wait, expecting the tiger to devour the soldier, but there is no need, they are one and the same. We remember Tong and Keng, we think of how they felt when we last saw them together. All of a sudden we realize how they must have felt, because we feel it now too: love is dangerous, love will consume us; we are powerless before our desire.
It is at this point in the film, when time seems suspended and I always find myself holding my breath, that all the previous images come rushing back: the gritty nature of life in these country communities, the ice-cutting and cement factories the people work in, the games of soccer and takraw they play on rough dirt fields—the kind of existence I knew so well from those days spent with my relatives on the jungle’s edge. Maybe Apichatpong’s tiger feels so intense and real because it speaks to our desire to break free from all that we know about family and society, about ourselves, even, and seek something—like love—that sets us free, no matter how dangerous it might be.
Tash Aw’s most recent novel is We The Survivors.