The inevitability of farewell

A gay romance with religious elements is the outstanding Thai film of the year

Sukollawat Kanarot, left, as Shane and Anuchit Sapanpong as Pich in Anucha Boonyawatana's Malila: The Farewell Flower. photo: photographer

A truly remarkable Thai film, Malila: The Farewell Flower takes big risks and makes it seem the most natural thing in the world.

This heart-rending love story -- a gay love story, though such a label seems needless -- is about the invisible scars in the soul of a man and how he seeks redemption through Buddhism, precisely a morbid form of Buddhism. The film, directed by Anucha Boonyawatana and having won many international prizes in the past four months, is a juxtaposition of unlikely cinematic filaments: melodrama and Buddhist philosophising, homoeroticism and existentialism, artistry and savagery, mortal beauty and immortal ugliness -- all of it telescoped through a calm, unblinking gaze. In other words, it's a film that monks and scholars of religion will love to discuss as much as the lay (and gay) audience will.

It's also a film that gives us Sukollawat "Weir" Kanarot, in a performance that's akin to a revelation -- think Timothée Chalamet in Call Me By Your Name. Sukollawat, a lakorn actor, has starred in a few bad films, all forgettable, but finally he has chosen the right, and risky, project to reveal how talented he is. Thai actors have to make their living on television, and that career necessity warrants quick popularity and inhibits self-improvement (and who cares?). By taking an atypical, bold role -- a straight actor playing a gay lover -- Sukollawat sets a great example, and is now a shoo-in for critical praise and acting prizes.

He plays Shane, a handsome farmer in a rural village. His lover, Pich (Anuchit Sapanpong), is a man dying of cancer, and a skilled craftsman in producing bai sri, elaborate, multi-tiered floral ornaments made from jasmine and banana leaves. Like all flower art, bai sri symbolises the fleetingness of life; its beauty withers even before the artist can finish making it. Ill-fated Pich is fading away, like his delicate flowers.

As Shane and Pich hack their way through a thicket to find privacy at an old hut fronted by a giant ant hill, we learn how death has cast its long shadow over their lives. There is mention of witches, of a python that devours people, and of the therapeutic quality of those flower jewels, which can be more effective than chemotherapy. There is also sex, and no matter how passionate it is, it's not enough to salvage Shane and Pich from the inevitability of a farewell.

Malila may demand that you adjust to its rhythm in the beginning; the film's sensitivity and signals are delicately registered under what looks like a banal surface of homoerotic romance. You could say it's kitsch, if not for the sensuous touch of the filmmakers. Anucha, the writer-director, is not in any hurry, and she trusts us to tune in to the melancholic beauty of her narrative before flipping the coin in the film's second part. There, Shane becomes a monk, and we follow him as he treks into a Thai-Cambodian forest with a mentor to practice asubha kammatthana, or corpse meditation, a form of mindfulness training that requires a person to stare at rotting corpses in a cemetery.

A good love story is always about suffering. And suffering, as we all know, is at the heart of Buddhism. The label "gay Buddhist love story" may sound like clickbait for the web page to a tawdry romance novel. However, for Anucha, it's only natural, or at least not antithetical, for the heartbroken to seek solace in the teachings of mortality and impermanence. Almost a decade ago, when still a film student at Chulalongkorn University, Anucha made By The River, about gay lovers who find peace in a temple. Two years ago, she made the Berlin-premiered The Blue Hour, a teen horror film with homoerotic elements.

It's obvious to compare Malila with Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Tropical Malady, especially the nocturnal wandering in the forest that leads the protagonist towards the jaws of redemption. In Apichatpong's film, animism is the spiritual force that rules the jungle; in Anucha's, the faith in Buddhism is more tangible, like an order that gives shape to chaos in the ruined heart of Shane. We can also look back at the 1950s films of Thai masters Ratana Pestonji, such as Black Silk and the recently restored Santi-Vina (directed by Marut and produced by Ratana), in which Buddhism provides a sanctuary for foiled romance. Anucha's film stretches the idea further and mixes spiritualism with horror, devotion with desire, faith with sexuality. Malila could have been conventional and preachy -- in the end, we all turn into maggot-infested corpses anyway, so why sob over a lost lover? -- but it's not. The film acknowledges the force of agony and the peril of grief as much as it trusts the gravity of the saffron robe.

Sukollawat, as Shane, understands that. His character is a man haunted by the spectre of death -- not his own, but of those he loves -- and he walks around with a weight on his shoulders, condemned to the realisation that the fleetingness of life is eternal. The actor, though he's been around for a decade, is a true discovery, and he's made Malila one of the best films of the year.

Malila: The Farewell Flower

A Thai film starring Sukollawat Kanarot, Anuchit Sapanpong

Directed by Anucha Boonyawatana

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