"Tropical Malady" is as beautiful as it is befuddling.

This gay-themed film vividly captures the sights and sounds of the jungle in Thailand, the home of its screenwriter/director, Apichatpong Weerasethakul. But you could make a case that it loses a lot in the translation, because a solid majority of audiences may find themselves confused or even completely lost as the film turns from a romance to, apparently, a psycho-sexual thriller with fantasy elements.

It's as if two completely different movies got spliced together in the editing room, or in the projection booth. (It would be nice for either the filmmaker or the Cannes Film Festival judges who awarded the film a Jury Prize to explain what it's about.)

The first half shows the evolution of a relationship between Keng (Banlop Lomnoi), a soldier, and Tong (Sakda Kaewbuadee), a country boy. As the two men spend more and more time together, it becomes clear that their feelings extend beyond simple friendship — though the initially forward Keng begins to have a few doubts about their relationship.

"Tropical Malady" also contains material detailing a few Thai legends, including one about a shape-changing shaman and another about the hunt for a tiger. In fact, the final sections of the film are a live-action retelling of the latter, as Keng tries to track down a jungle beast.

The film is at its most mesmerizing during that perplexing second half. (A trio of cinematographers and the sound crew are the movie's real stars.) It's possible that Weerasethakul is trying to depict Keng's subconscious struggle with his wants and desires with the fantasy-thriller elements, but it's never really explained.

Also, his pacing is pretty self-indulgent. A noxious karaoke scene seems to go on forever, and the first half of the film just meanders.

"Tropical Malady" is not rated but would probably receive an R for some strong violence (including animal attacks), flashes of full male nudity, brief sexual contact (homosexual in nature), some brief gore, and scattered use of profanity. Running time: 114 minutes.

E-mail: [email protected]