"Tropical Malady" elicits a sensation similar to that which accompanied Werner Herzog's "Aguirre: The Wrath of God" more than 30...

“Tropical Malady” elicits a sensation similar to that which accompanied Werner Herzog’s “Aguirre: The Wrath of God” more than 30 years ago: A sense that the potential of film had been suddenly redefined, a revival of primal storytelling that embraces the exotic while addressing universal desires.

Movie review 3.5 stars

Showtimes and trailer

“Tropical Malady,” with Banlop Lomnoi and Sakda Kaewbuadee. Directed by Apichatpong Weerasethakul. 118 minutes. Not rated; contains brief nudity and mild violence. Northwest Film Forum, today through Thursday.

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Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s mysterious gay romance, winner of a Jury Prize at Cannes last year, shares only its jungle setting with Herzog’s unforgettable classic. Beyond that “Malady” is altogether different yet equally beguiling. Mid-way it shifts from realism to allegory so abruptly that it’s been known to send film-festival audiences into a state of mass confusion. (It had the same effect on me, but the ploy is so audacious it’s the highlight of my movie year so far.)

The shift (which the director has called “a mirror in the center that reflects both ways”) results in two separate movies, thematically related by desire. What begins as a coyly tentative romance between charming soldier Keng (Banlop Lomnoi) and shy farm boy Tong (Sakda Kaewbuadee) becomes a kind of nocturnal vision quest. Derived from a shamanic folk tale, it involves enticing encounters (or fever-induced visions?) with a talking baboon, a ghostly cow and a man — Keng’s would-be lover — who shape-shifts into a tiger.

Weerasethakul (“Blissfully Yours”) is content to leave some of his mysteries unexplained, and that makes “Tropical Malady” a singular filmgoing experience. For an exquisite taste of sensory cinema, look no further.