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Hollywood has persuaded most moviegoers that Cinema = Story + Stars—which simplifies marketing but is problematic for subtler indie and foreign films, and occasionally even for mainline product. (The Island probably flopped because few could imagine Ewan McGregor and Scarlett Johansson as action-flick heroes.) Sometimes a movie’s atmosphere is its major virtue or even its essence. Take, for example, two new romantic tales from tropical climes, The Constant Gardener and Tropical Malady. The former contains boatloads of plot, as befits a film adapted from a novel by veteran mysterian John le Carré, yet is notable mostly for its impressionistic plunge into everyday Kenya; the latter has the barest outline of narrative and is least convincing in those rare moments when it tries to explain itself.
Like director Fernando Meirelles’ previous film, the electrifying City of God, The Constant Gardener begins in the middle of something. Mild-mannered British diplomat Justin Quayle (Ralph Fiennes) bids farewell to his wife at the airport and soon thereafter receives word that she’s dead. Rumors relayed by unctuous fellow bureaucrat Sandy Woodrow (buttoned-down-villain specialist Danny Huston) suggest that Tessa Quayle (Rachel Weisz) was having an affair with her traveling companion, crusading local doctor Arnold Bluhm (Hubert Koundé), who for some reason killed her. Yet other, and more reliable, sources indicate that Tessa was murdered to end her investigation into the harmful drug testing conducted on impoverished Kenyans by a ruthless British pharmaceutical company. Deciding that the best possible tribute to his late wife would be to continue her work, Justin picks up the trail of her investigation, which takes him to London, Berlin, and Sudan, and then back to Kenya for the movie’s remarkably bleak finale.
As condensed from le Carré by scripter Jeffrey Caine, this story is unexceptional, even a little stale. Berlin, no longer a capital of East-West intrigue, is a distracting detour, and the bad-Europeans-poisoning-innocent-Africans plot is virtually identical to that of the utterly frivolous Sahara. So Caine and Meirelles attempt to render their tale more mysterious by fracturing it. Flashbacks gradually fill in the story of Justin and Tessa’s unlikely romance (and give Weisz more screen time); some scenes are played again and again, but with new details added in subsequent iterations. In one such sequence, Tessa first takes Justin to bed, basically to compensate for the aggressive way she challenged him when he was lecturing colorlessly in favor of Britain’s role in the invasion of Iraq. (He’s overwhelmed by her ardor; she “feels safe” with his unmacho awkwardness.) Then Tessa learns that Justin is about to be transferred from London to Kenya and impulsively asks if he’ll take her along. Cut to Nairobi, where perpetually flustered Justin and blithely pregnant Tessa maintain an affectionate if somewhat distant marriage: He tends the garden while she rakes muck, keeping her explorations mostly secret from her new husband. Sandy, who is utterly smitten with Tessa but fears the consequences of her activism, warns Justin to control her.
Like Tessa, the film comes to life when it escapes the tidy European enclaves for such locations as Kibera, a massive Kenyan slum, or the refugee camps of Sudan, where Justin seeks the gruff doctor (Pete Postlethwaite) who will deliver the movie’s message: The big Western drug companies are just as vile as the arms merchants who profit from Africa’s misery. But it’s local color, not politics, that periodically animates The Constant Gardener. Meirelles and City of God cinematographer César Charlone swirl through Kibera’s streets, rendered in handheld swoops, quick-cut juxtapositions, and tropicalismo hues. This free-form swagger extends to some of the scenes with Fiennes and Weisz, who seem to be gamely improvising. (Once again, Fiennes demonstrates how much range he can find in his trademark upper-crust roles.) But the other principal Brits (played by a cast that includes Bill Nighy and Gerard McSorley) are more stolid, as are the techniques used to render them and their world: desaturated color, formal locations, and polite nonconversation.
The apparent goal is to illustrate the banality of evil, but Meirelles’ speciality is the flamboyant, not the ordinary. Perhaps that’s why large sections of the movie are merely competent, no better than a half-dozen other cinematic le Carré adaptations. Ultimately, the film seems designed less as an exposé than as the director’s entree into the potentially lucrative world of English-language cinema. That would be fine if Meirelles had something new to say about the emotionally frozen North, but The Constant Gardener reveals that the filmmaker goes cold whenever he leaves the equatorial realm that is his emotional homeland.
So simple it’s difficult, Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Tropical Malady is just an account of two guys hanging out, tentatively falling in love. Then, roughly halfway through, the movie starts again and becomes the tale of a man tracking another man, who may be a tiger or a ghost or a ghost tiger. Perhaps the latter story is allegorical, and perhaps it’s about the same two people. (They are the same two actors.) If you want everything spelled out, you’re in the wrong theater.
A Cannes Jury Prize winner in 2004, Tropical Malady is the fourth feature by Weerasethakul, a film-fest star of decidedly limited commercial potential. For non-Thai pals, the U.S.-educated director’s name is not a problem: Informally, he goes by “Joe.” His work, however, is not so easily reduced to common American parlance. Even by comparison with the films of such contemporary Asian dream logicians as Wong Kar-wai and Takashi Miike, Weerasethakul’s fancies are exceptionally resistant to reason.
The initial part of the film is low-key and unassuming, an everyday reverie punctuated by odd juxtapositions. The first one is not long in coming: A group of camouflage-clad Thai Forest Patrol soldiers that includes Keng (Banlop Lamnoi) poses for a group photo with a trophy, which turns out to be a human corpse. (The remains of a separatist guerrilla? Who knows?) Soon enough, Keng meets quiet small-town boy Tong (Sakda Kaewbuadee) and the two wander about, discussing the Clash, taking a dog to the vet, and exploring a cave temple with an older woman who offers them some pot. (The temple contains a large wooden phallus, but there’s nothing between the men that approaches sex.) Odd things transpire in the background as very little happens in the foreground, save for Keng’s declarations of love. Then the movie splits and begins to observe a soldier in the jungle, searching for a tiger who is—at least some of the time—a man covered in body-paint patterns. The soldier may be Keng, and the phantom tiger could be Tong; that would make sense thematically, anyway.
The film doesn’t look all that great, but Weerasethakul’s technique can be beguiling. He’s especially rigorous with the soundtrack, balancing amplified nature sounds with brief bursts of songs and passages of evocative silence. For those who can accept its rhythm, such careful ordering of mundane sights and sounds give the movie a meditative power. It transforms daily life into a mind-emptying sort of ritual, uneventful yet mesmerizing.
Or at least the first stanza does. Tropical Malady’s most fervent admirers insist that the two pieces fit together and deepen each other. But Part 2 flirts with silliness, only to fully embrace the ridiculous when a baboon appears to deliver aphorisms that jumble Nietzsche and snuff porn. “You are his prey and his companion,” quoth the monkey. “Let him devour you and enter his world.” At this point, the truly captivated will be transported to Weerasethakul’s erotic slumberland. Everyone else, however, will wake up snickering.CP