The Santa Ana winds have been raging in Los Angeles this week, looking for trouble, roaming the Basin like a restless beast, toppling trucks and tearing off roofs with almost instinctual abandon. On the freeway one morning a day or so ago, I moved along at a somewhat slower speed, my hands grasping the wheel a little more firmly than usual, buffeted by air blasts from both sides. The big gust, unexpected, of course, and shocking, lifted the minivan slightly, the weight of the vehicle's body rising off and rocking on the suspension system. Though the wheels likely never left the ground, it felt as though I would surely be upended by the air velocity equivalent of a body slam from a 300-pound line defender. The winds never really stopped, and they only gained in insistence and fury as the sun went down. From my office desk, I could hear mysterious, loose sections of the building continually crashing, helplessly caught in the jaws of the beast, as evening became nighttime, became morning. On the slow drive home, the city still in darkness, I dodged debris on the road and watched from behind the wheel as leaves and branches and trash swirled and lifted off into the star-dotted black. And as I arrived in my driveway, I had to wonder if I wasn't finally hallucinating slightly from a too-long workday. Was that really a gigantic branch torn free from the oversized tree along the north end of our house, fallen (harmlessly) to rest in our front lawn, the wounded end still propped up against the trunk of which it was once a part, the branches fanned out on the lawn looking like God's own leafy-green feather duster? (I wasn't, and it was.)
The next evening saw no relief from the drying, chaffing, noisy gusts, but there was a brief respite from work-- a good time, as it turned out, to settle in and begin catching up with some of the past year's films that had still managed to elude me. First on the list: Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Tropical Malady, a languid, lovely and unadorned romance that accumulates a quiet power almost by sleight of hand. In telling the story of Keng, a Thai soldier (effectively, a forest ranger on a fire watch crew) and his growing fondness for Tong, an aimless, slightly ethereal young man who works at an ice factory, the director teases out layers of sensory meaning and texture from a dense, invigorated Bangkok and its rural surroundings through which his protagonists meander as they while away summer days talking and laughing and slowly falling in love. There's a barely hinted-at mysticism underlying the lazy days that pass between these two, which, at first, seems almost found. They eat, talk, play and imagine a future together, and the first half of the movie has a seductive ordinariness about it; it sparks you to wonder how long Weerasethakul intends to keep these balls in the air before one inevitably drops onto the dusty street. But then the two encounter a cheerful woman who tells them a parable of a young monk, two roadside travelers and rocks that turn to gold and silver, and then invites them along to explore with her the darkest recesses of a open cavern. She tells them stories, which may or may not be true, about past explorations of the cavern ending in suffocation and other fearful experiences. The soldier is seized with an inexplicable fear, born not of claustrophobia but instead something far less tangible, which prevents him from proceeding.
That fear is also a prefiguring of the strange turn the movie will soon take-- the folkloric mysticism, which has been up till now quietly pulsating under the movie's lush surface, takes center stage when Tong literally disappears into the thick night and Keng, who has taken to the jungle in search of him, comes to believe Tong may in fact be the incarnation of a shape-shifting Khmer shaman responsible for the disappearance of cattle and some villagers. Tropical Malady surrenders its second hour to Keng's search, a near-wordless submersion into the dense, wet, living texture of that jungle which brings him closer to the sensually mysterious object of his pursuit, and to a aching, primal version of himself. The jungle not only cloaks the beast, it's a living system that facilitates the beast's hidden movements through the very fiber of its harsh environment-- through the mud, the rain, and the pounding, swirling, wind-swept trees that seem to bear up both pursuer and pursued toward a fateful meeting charged with eroticism, fear and divine magic. Weerasethakul's unwavering conviction, his sureness of purpose as the movie glides effortlessly from the casually observational to the sublimely insinuating and ineffable, is genuinely awesome. The director conjures drama from encouraging the viewer to reach back and draw connections between the parable of the monk, Tong's own increasingly tactile, nonverbal presence, and Keng's desperate desire not only to reconnect with the man he loves, but for that man to be something else, to have taken a step into another consciousness that he may be too afraid to make himself. As Keng moves closer to his mystical encounter, underneath trees that move and wave and twist, inspired by an insistent, perhaps sinister wind, it's easy to get caught up in the soldier's heightened, breathless awareness of every sound, every tiny creature (often ones found sucking blood from his calves), every leaf brushing up against his muddied face.
I could hear the giant willow trees surrounding my house being whipped and tormented mercilessly by the Santa Anas as I became entranced by the last hour of Tropical Malady, and if ever there were a perfect confluence of nature and art, home theater-style, this was it. While Weerasethakul's jungle vibrated and pulsated off my big screen, and through my speaker system, the howling of wind and concurrent loud rustling outside, augmented by my memory of that fallen branch and the fear that more might soon come crashing down, made for the most spectacular, and strangely mournful, 6.1 surround sound experience in my recent memory. I thought of those that have gone missing from my life and allowed myself to believe, as Keng believed, that the winds causing so much havoc and inconvenience to the city at large (and to the citizenry's sinuses) could, perhaps for just this one hour, carry their spirits back to me as well. The movie, so alive to wonder and terror, and to the hypnotic allure of the absolutely ordinary as well, invites you to jump around in it, get muddy, feel what it has to offer, and encourages you to take a strange journey for which you are only modestly prepared. The tiger in its wind will finally come to rest and, as it does Keng, stare you down through the underbrush and ask you, silently, inarticulately, some simple, fundamental questions. The movie will live in your mind for days, the memory of its haunted, lovely textures swirling, undulating, giving you all the time you need to think about your answers.