Malila: The Farewell Flower

Malila: The Farewell Flower ★★★★★

I have been wondering for the last month and a half what my 1,500th review on this site would be.  It looked for a while that it might have been a MIFF in-cinema film but Melbourne’s sixth Covid lockdown put paid to that idea and I am part of the Denis Villeneuve camp who think that streaming a film festival film is like “driving a speedboat in a bathtub”. Fine if that floats your boat (pun intended) but it does not match my great MIFF memories.  

I had seen Anucha Boonyawatana’s remarkable film at MQFF2019 and have been waiting since then for its release on DVD.  My Bangkok mates had bought me a copy for my birthday in June and I was starting to wonder if it had been lost in the post.  The mail snails finally delivered it just as our latest “one week” lockdown started so I resisted the urge to put it on straight away and listed it for our next Tuesday movie night.  Of course, that “one week” has been extended twice, now to 2 September and it would be a brave person who would bet on us getting out of this by then.  But as has happened with every snake in this pandemic, the ladder is that I had a film that I love for number 1,500.

I have provided a synopsis and some commentary in my 2019 review so will not go over the same ground here but will stick to second viewing comments.  Knowing where the character arcs are going, I am even more impressed this time by the screenplay that Anucha co-wrote with Waasuthep Ketpetch, especially by their use of subtle metaphors and temporal loops.  So many key scenes echo things that have happened earlier, either that we have seen or that we have been told about in conversation.

For example, when Shane (Sukollawat Kanarot) and Pich (Anuchit Sapanpong) meet up again on Shane’s farm when the very ill Pich returns from Bangkok, they physically hack their way through overgrown vegetation to get to what used to be their favourite place while their conversation clears away the emotional undergrowth that has resulted from the decisions each had made that led to their separation.  Their special place, which is a location that brings them joyful memories from when they were lovers, is also a source of great sadness for Shane because it is where his small daughter was killed while he was drunk instead of looking after her.  He literally has to clear away the remains of the python that killed her and that he killed in turn.

Anucha also uses repeated (often doubled) images - two bodies of water, two additional bodies of water with the surroundings reflected in their glassy surfaces, two Shane/Pich sex scenes, two rain storms, two meditation sessions with the maggot-riddled corpse.  The temporal loops also make the point that our past actions can resurface in our present.

Shane and Pich’s current relationship mirrors their earlier relationship even though both have experienced significant trauma in the intervening period.  The other major circle occurs in the story arc of Monk Sangchai (Sumret Muengput), the itinerant jungle monk who becomes Shane’s spiritual mentor in the second half of the film.   I wondered last time whether Monk Sangchai, who had been a Thai Army Colonel before becoming a monk, knew where to find corpses because he had been part of the killings in the border conflicts in Isaan.

I now think that that is absolutely the case.  He tells Pich to memorise and visualise their surroundings so that Pich will not think that shapes he discerns in the dark are ghosts.  He also says he knows that there are ghosts in that cemetery “but we can only see ghosts of people we know”.  They will both see ghosts but with very different outcomes - Monk Sangchai will weep tears of contrition and sicken, Pich’s experience will be transcendent.

In 2019, I suggested that Anucha was not simply copying Apichatpong Weerasethakul here and, having seen Melbourne Cinémathèque’s recent season of Apichatpong’s films, I still think that.  Structurally, Anucha’s film falls into two distinct halves like, say, Tropical Malady (2004),  but Apichatpong would have told this story in a very different way.  In some respects, the story and the film are very Thai but the emotions that Shane (and Pich) are dealing with here are universal.

I was totally blown away again by Chaiyapruek Chalermpornpanich’s cinematography.  From his filmography on IMDb it looks like he has since done some screenwriting and directing as well as cinematography for Thai TV.  His lighting of the jungle sequences and his lighting and framing of the two Shane/Pich sex scenes is amazing and so much of the emotional content is carried in his work rather than the relatively sparse dialogue.  And that final drone/helicopter shot wiped me out again, even though I knew what was coming.  Composer Chapavich Temnitikul provides a subtle score which sound editor Wirada Singhasin uses sparingly but very effectively.  

Second films can be a stumble for many directors but this film went straight in at #22 on my all time top 25 and, now that I have my own copy, may well get upgraded at the end of this year.  It is a very appropriate choice for review number 1,500 and will do the hand to hand lockdown rounds of the Tuesday film night crew over the next fortnight. Once Melbourne Cinémathèque screenings begin again, I am very happy to lend it.  Films this good need to be shared.

Anucha is a rare talent and I cannot wait to see what she does next.  Her next completed work was a Thai TV series, Forbidden, which screened earlier this year but it is unlikely to be subtitled and released outside Thailand.  The film won seven awards including at Busan, Singapore, and LA Outfest and received an additional ten nominations.  There are no extras on the tla releasing DVD.

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