When is a love story not a love story? While it’s a loaded question, it’s one I was left pondering after watching ‘Malila: The Farewell Flower’. A queer Thai film, this one stands out by offering something more than romance - but how effective is it in doing so?
Shane (Sukollawat Kanarot, ‘The Teacher's Diary’) runs a farm in rural Thailand. When an old friend and lover, Pich (Anuchit Sapanpong) returns to town, the two gradually rekindle their relationship - however, there are a few unusual complications. Pich is suffering from cancer, and Shane has sworn to become a monk for a period. As they both learn to live with and without each other, they also discover how to deal with loss in different ways.
This is a thoughtful, contemplative film, dwelling on moments instead of rushing through its story. The meditative approach concerns itself with intimate details; shots will linger extensively on small things like one hand slowly moving towards another’s. While the love story does contain passionate instances, it’s more concerned with the sensual and emotional elements of the relationship, and the time we spend with Shane and Pich is clearly one of deep affection.
It’s also a credit to writer and director Anucha Boonyawatana (‘The Blue Hour’) and cinematographer Chaiyapruek Chalermpornpanich that the film looks as beautiful as it does. Even in the harshest of conditions - Thailand’s dry season, torrential downpours, some more physically gruelling scenes - each frame is a work of art. Dialog is sparse, leaving the powerful imagery to unveil much of the story. There’s a sense of style that’s so often missing from Thai productions (typically due to budgetary restraints), yet here it’s undoubtedly the film’s biggest drawcard.
The story is also unapologetically Thai - not a country to shy away from sexuality of any nature, the film instead deals with other issues that face Thailand, including poverty, the immense contrast between Bangkok and the rural villages, the debate between Western and traditional medicine, and Shane’s heavy reliance on alcohol, a systemic problem in Thailand. These are the elements which give the story its depth.
Even in the harshest of conditions - Thailand’s dry season, torrential downpours, some more gruesome scenes - each frame is a work of art. It’s undoubtedly the film’s biggest drawcard.
Unfortunately, it’s not these issues, nor the love story, which take centre stage in this film. Shane’s mission to become a monk - which he is told will also help Pich’s cancer - takes what is already a reflective tale and makes it even slower. While it’s an interesting insight into an experience practically every Thai male goes through, far too much of the film is spent on it - roughly half of its 90 minute runtime, in fact. That’s paired with the ambiguous nature of the storytelling; at first, this is a blessing, and we’re left to learn much about the characters through their interactions, but there are also time jumps which leave gaping questions for the audience.
This isn’t a love story; it tries to be so much more, but ultimately does fail. Boonyawatana’s script is largely at fault here, with massive pacing issues and a surreal ending that doesn’t necessarily gel well with the rest of the film’s style. Nonetheless, this is an interesting glimpse at rural Thai culture, and a genuine attempt to show a love that’s far from superficial.