Riveting and sincere, Anucha Boonyawatana’s powerful feature film bluntly, but calmly reminds us of the inescapable reality of death. From its roots as a chilling, complex concept to its nitty-gritty manifestation as a decaying, irrepressible force in the universe, Malila: The Farewell Flower (มะลิลา) looks at death from a variety of enlightening perspectives. Shot in collaboration with cinematographer Chaiyapruek Chalermpornpanich, the motion picture brings an entirely new and intangible dimension to filmmaking, beyond words, effective storytelling and visuals.
Malila successfully weaves together topics like terminal illness, Buddhist philosophy, the therapeutic power of art and gay romance. Deeply affected by his daughter’s death and the separation from his wife, Shane (Sukollawat Kanarot) is yet again collapsing under life’s weight when his friend and former lover, Pitch (Anuchit Sapanpong), is diagnosed with terminal cancer. Although Shane does not know how to handle this news, his companion seems surprisingly calm and accepting in the face of his imminent death. As the man’s illness progresses, Shane is reunited with his lover and becomes more and more determined to continue his life as a Buddhist monk.
The tranquil, soothing visuals and smooth transitions are the first to stand out in Malila: The Farewell Flower. Depicting naturalism with grace and warmth, Boonyawatana brings a gentle, reassuring touch to the grim, harrowing topic of death. The frames seem to flow effortlessly as the viewer is immersed deeper and deeper into the narrative. The ingenious script, written in collaboration with Waasuthep Ketpetch, does not only deal with loss, the ephemeral nature of existence and the inevitable pain that comes with grief. It also tackles issues like chronic illness, frustration, uncertainty and the peace found in companionship. The movie is also like a pleasant handbook of mediation, where the viewer witnesses the main character’s transformation as he picks up and dedicates himself to his meditative practice.
The Thai Bai Sri ornaments are of central importance to the film. Similar to a well-known Tibetan tradition (the monks work for hours or days to create a perfect, flawless mandala with millions of pieces of sand that fit impeccably together, after which they destroy it), Boonyawatana’s motion picture raises the question of the real meaning to life. Pitch is often found spending his remaining moments working on an ornament from interlaced jasmine flowers and banana leaves. The metaphor is the same – is there any purpose in life or any reason to do anything as long as everything is wiped clean by death in the end? What the monk’s ritual proves is that, yes, even though the mandala (and, likewise life) is temporary and ultimately destroyed, the process of creating it, improving it and patiently putting it together is beautiful, whole and a reward in itself. The fact that eventually it withers or disappears is of no relevance to its delicacy and importance. This is the lesson Pitch seems to learn as he becomes fully absorbed in Buddhist practices.
The film is rife with dreamlike scenery, serene moments shared between characters and an overall sense of peace that transcends any imagery or dialogue. However, Boonyawatana does not shy away from the crude reality of death – the ghastly scene which depicts a rotting corpse without any embellishment is macabre not necessarily due to its visuals, but more so because of the emptiness and utter silence which surrounds the cadaver. It forces the viewer to face their own mortality, not only as some abstract, distant idea, but as a full-fledged, impending reality. Furthermore, the movie does not only explore the surreal experience of confronting one’s own death, but also how loss and grief affects loved ones. As such, Shane’s perspective and hardship in dealing with his friend’s unavoidable death is equally as important as what Pitch goes through.
Can Mali (the Thai word for jasmine flower) ornaments and an ascetic lifestyle relieve the ego from the pangs of death? This is ultimately the question that Malila: The Farewell Flower (มะลิลา) tries to answer. After a violent and explicit debut with The Blue Hour, Boonyawatana takes on a gentler, more contemplative perspective and shows us that, counterintuitively, you can find peace in the darkest of times, in spite (or because) of life’s fleeting nature.