Author's note, February 2017: My God, I used to be a dumb little child. Keeping this one up for posterity, but I'm pleased to say that I've had much more sophisticated experiences with this movie since.

From time to time, I see a movie that I don't know what to make out of it. Not just a movie that I'm mulling over for days or weeks - e.g. Grizzly Man, which I'll probably need to see again - but a movie that I literally can't decide whether or not I even liked watching it, let alone how good it is.

Enter Tropical Malady (the original Thai title translates more exactly as "Strange Animal," which is better), a Thai film by Apichatpong Weerasethakul, winner of the 2004 Cannes Jury Prize. It is two films in one, really - the first is the story of a soldier on leave who begins a tentative relationship with a country boy, the second the story of a soldier hunting a tiger-ghost in a jungle. It appears the the soldier is the same in both stories, and that the tiger ghost is actually the boy; my confusion on this point is at the heart of my ambivalence towards the movie.

The first half is really rather good. I do not know how Thai culture treats homosexuality, but it is unimaginable that an American film with the same plot would be so utterly non-exploitative. Nothing happens, really, it's just a series of scenes that evoke a mood. If it has a theme, it is, "everything is fresh and new when you are falling in love." There are many films about new lovers, but it's been a few years since there's been a film that so finely evokes the sense of joy brought on by experiencing things with a lover for the first time.

The second half is also good, although far more expressionist and experimental; it has very little dialogue, being mainly the story of a hunt. Title cards flash up from time-to-time, but they tend to increase the sense of mysticism, rather than explain anything. The lighting and editing here also take a pronounced turn to the dreamlike (one shot sticks in my mind: a tree at night, lit from underneath with floodlights, looking like a throbbing green...something).

The problem is, the relationship between the two is arbitrary and unclear. I have to assume they're the same characters because there's no other way to make sense of any of it, but the movie doesn't go out of its way to make sure I know that. No plot elements seem to connect the two; there is no reference to the love affair, unless it was so subtle and the subtitles so crude that I missed it. This is underscored by the first part's apparent "ending," and the second part's apparent "beginning" (the first part in particular could be a very solid stand-alone movie). It feels more like an omnibus or anthology film than a single storyline. Make no mistake, the movie tells a very compelling complete story, but it really only does so in spite of itself. You have to go into it wanting to like it.