Apichatpong Weerasethakul's "Frame by Frame" presentation last Friday (April 6) at the Pacific Film Archive of his lovely 2004 pain in the ass Tropical Malady didn't provide much in the way of explanations. Armed with a DVD player remote and an unpretentious appreciation of his own film, the Thai director instead offered truckloads of tiny, personal details as reassurance that the thick-growth trail through his story is a simple one if we just let it be.
But with Tropical Malady's bizarre structure begging for answers (the wispy gay love story is practically a double feature, one film sporting a naturalism devoid of the usual touchstones of logic, the other a near-silent mythical jungle pursuit featuring a man-tiger, a talking monkey, and a glowing tree), the audience sure tried to get their money's worth out of poor Apichatpong. Faced with our determination to extract as much significance from every directorial flourish as possible, the soft-spoken director responded with honesty and humility. Viewer: "What a wonderful absence of an establishing shot here -- we don't even know if it's one or two soccer games being played. Could you speak to that?" Apichatpong: "I thank my editor, I guess. Oh, wait, there's the establishing shot." Viewer: "Is the aerobics scene metaphorical?" Apichatpong: "No, it's just part of the portrait of the city, no deeper. I like the music."
Apichatpong doesn't hide his infatuations ("I found a place for this guy in the pool hall scene because he was so beautiful"; "I just really like fluorescent light"). Never dismissive, though (of us or himself), he spoke lovingly of his decisions, almost with more affection than authority. He trusts his instincts but recognizes them as just that. He did, however, act as secret decoder ring in another way, letting us in on the film's deliciously bitchy inside jokes: the placement, in the opening credits, of the unpopular director of photography's name across the image of a man "scratching his balls," or the inclusion of a Thai pop singer's poster in a scene as a response to his unwillingness to come out of the closet. Those admissions spoke as eloquently of Tropical Malady's concern with our animal natures as anything else in its elusive two hours. (Jason Shamai)