Anucha Boonyawatana’s second feature, Malila: The Farewell Flower (มะลิลา), opens with a quotation from a 19th century poem. The poem laments that even a Baisri painstakingly created to honour the gods will eventually be cast away once it has served its purpose. No longer divine, its soul departed, the ornament is just another thing to be disposed of. Like the beautiful Baisri, two men’s souls will briefly intertwine only for the flowers of their love to wither on the vine, fading away with the great work still incomplete. This incompleteness, the lingering sense of absence and irreconcilable longing, propel the one left behind onto a spiritual journey hoping to discover if the answers to his need lie within or are not to be found at all.
Shane (Sukollawat Kanarot), the owner of a jasmine plantation, has recently begun to rebuild his life following a period of heavy drinking during which his wife left him and his young daughter was killed by a python in the jungle. Reuniting with his former lover, Pich (Anuchit Sapanpong), Shane is distraught to find out that he is terminally ill with lung cancer and has decided to give up on conventional medicine and devote the rest of his life doing the things that make him happy. Pich’s one form of “treatment” is in his constant making and dispatching of “Baisri” – ornaments constructed from leaves and flowers for ceremonial occasions which, painstakingly created, must be sent away on the river after they have fulfilled their purpose.
Jasmine flowers are, as Pich remarks, too weak – they wither before the Baisri is completed. Though the two men are able to rekindle their romance, their time is limited. Shane contemplates becoming a monk in the hope that his good karma can be transferred to Pich but it is not to be. Alone, he sets out on a spiritual journey guided by another monk hoping to encounter the ghosts of himself and of his loves to absolve himself of his guilt and loneliness.
Set against the beautiful Thai landscape, Malila is a tale of fading flowers and eternal regrets. The art of Baisri requires intense focus and dedication in order to repurpose and reorder nature into something essentially manmade but beautiful. Later, during his quest, Shane will be met with a terrifying though no less intense experience when his guide and fellow monk instructs him in the art of corpse meditation. The sight of the body, putrid and infested with hungry maggots busily going about their business, presents a strong contrast with the otherwise idyllic scenery and forces a more literal contemplation of the process of decay as the human form dissolves leaving only memory and a ghost of past emotion in its place.
Ironically, or perhaps not, a Baisri is intended to mark a new beginning – a “farewell” on an onward journey. Shane sets off on a spiritual quest, suffering nobly in the forests with their frequent rainstorms and learning to be in the moment in the company of the comparatively better experienced monk who guides him, a former soldier now on the spiritual path. His search is internal but illuminated by the world around him and his gradually increasing connection with it.
Eventually transcending this world for another, Shane begins to find his answers and finally cleanses himself of his loss and suffering. Mixing lyrical poetry with beautifully photographed naturalism, Anucha Boonyawatana tells a painful tale of love lost and found, hearts broken and repaired, and finally of acceptance both of one’s self and of the transience of all things. Malila: The Farewell Flower is a parting gift to a departing love, filled with sorrow and regret but also with beauty even in decay.
Screened at BFI Flare 2018.
Original trailer (English subtitles)