As I did when writing about Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, I'll refer to the director as "Joe", which is what he asks English speakers to call him. Thanks, Joe!
Joe's films have a reputation for being difficult. As I noted in that earlier review, when Uncle Boonmee was shown at Cannes, people started walking out after only six minutes. Tropical Malady suffered a similar fate ... as the ever-reliable Wikipedia tells us, at Cannes, "several audience members left before the film was over and some of those who stayed until the end booed it." Nonetheless, it won the Jury Prize, and its critical reputation has grown (it is currently #251 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time, and #9 for the 21st century).
Tropical Malady is only half-difficult. It is split into two parts, the first of which tells of the budding romance of a soldier and a country boy. If not exactly straightforward in its approach, that first half nonetheless is easy to follow, beautiful to look at, and rather charming as we watch the two men get to know each other. The second half arrives without any real warning, and is open to interpretation. It also involves a soldier, and perhaps the country boy, although who knows? He goes into the jungle looking for a missing villager, and finds a shaman who turns into a tiger. Many odd things happen. The film is still beautiful to look at, and the soldier and tiger man are played by the same actors who played the soldier and country boy in the first half. You decide what it means.
Jeff Pike is onto something when he says Joe "might as well be approached as something of an Asian David Lynch." Lynch usually annoys me, but there is something playful about the way Joe confuses us, which for me, at least, makes him easier to take.