This World and the Last
By Michael Koresky
Cemetery of Splendor
Dir. Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Thailand, Strand Releasing
Gently lift up a corner of the placid surface on any film by Apichatpong Weerasethakul and youâ€™ll find simmering discontent. Known for his tendency to draw viewers into gentle Buddhist reverie, the Thai director and multimedia artist is also a politically disillusioned filmmaker intent on quietly condemning the monarchic culture and military government that have led to the oppression of his countryâ€™s people and the censoring of its art for many decades. No stranger to censorship, Apichatpong has seen many of his films denied certification in his homeland for various crimes, such as portraying monks playing guitar or showing doctors drinking alcohol. The punishment could be worse: strict laws make it illegal to criticize or insult the king and royal family, and some have been put in jail for as much as fifteen years for allegedly doing so. Apichatpong has to use symbolic gestures and coded language to get his critiques across, a method necessary for him to continue making films, which he said in a recent interview he finds â€śfrustrating and suffocating.â€ť Though present, such frustration doesnâ€™t seem to disturb the remarkable serenity of his films, however. Watching them, from the swaying surrealism of Tropical Malady to the looking-glass realism of Syndromes and a Century to the regenerative mythmaking of Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, one does not need to understand the politics of Thailand or his attitude towards it, to appreciate, enjoy, and be intellectually moved. At the same time, the rich vein of culturally specific social commentary flowing underneath makes them thrillingly deceptive works.
Underneath is the operative word for his latest, the entirely beguiling Cemetery of Splendor, in which two worldsâ€”one visible, one notâ€”exist simultaneously. The film creates, with the simplest of strokes, a universe where past and present, dream and reality, life and death commingle constantly, yet which is always grounded in a palpable now, in the directorâ€™s hometown of Khon Kaen. Here, in a rural childrenâ€™s schoolroom turned makeshift hospital, lie rows of soldiers afflicted with a seemingly incurable sleeping sickness. The chatty nurses who attend to them do not have much in the way of medical equipment, save for soothing balms and dazzling neon tubes that glow changing colors and appear to watch over the men as they drift in limbo. Itâ€™s a dreamy premise, perfect for Apichatpongâ€™s star-gazing, meditative approach to filmmaking: he allows us so much space and duration to take in an image, enveloping us with a radiant quiet we so rarely experience in narrative cinema.
Itâ€™s become clear over the years that one of the key elements to the directorâ€™s aesthetic is his use of recurring middle-aged actor Jenjira Pongpas. Her patient visage and hushed tone of voice were crucial to Blissfully Yours, Syndromes and a Century, and Uncle Boonmee, and they all but set the pace of Cemetery of Splendor. The main character and spiritual driving force of the film, Jenjira would be merely beatific as an on-duty nurse who finds herself drawn to a particular slumbering soldier, the handsome Itt (Tropical Maladyâ€™s Banlop Lomnoi), if not for her pragmatic, self-effacing reserve. Despite the actorâ€™s heavy, unsteady gait, caused by her painfully unmatched leg lengths, Jenjira has a ghostly quality; she might as well be floating across the ground.
During one becalmed long take, Jen spends a goodly amount of time moisturizing Ittâ€™s supine body, until his eyes suddenly open, and he awakens for the first time. Though theyâ€™ve never met, he tells her he recognizes her from his sleep. Itâ€™s the first indication that Cemetery of Splendor is engaging with a second world, a liminal state thatâ€™s not quite waking life. As the film continues, we come to learn that the sleeping soldiers are being forced to replay an entire period of Thailandâ€™s distant past. In an amusingly mundane supernatural disruption that recalls Uncle Boonmeeâ€™s matter-of-fact family dinner reunion with a ghost and a talking monkey-man, a mildly surprised Jenjira is visited during an outdoor lunch by the physical materialization of two Buddhist princessesâ€”dressed in casual contemporary dudsâ€”to whom she had made offerings at a shrine. They inform her that the school-turned-hospital she works at stands on the site of a former kingdomâ€™s graveyard. In classic ghost movie fashion, this means the dead are haunting the living, with the spirits inhabiting the souls of the sleeping soldiers and making them fight in armies of battles long ago. This seems to be about as clear a metaphor as one can dream up for contemporary Thailand: a zombie-fied population hypnotized into doing the bloody bidding of a military dictatorship. Yet as always Apichatpongâ€™s mercurial, ruminative, and often witty approach disallows the film from becoming an obvious message movie. The director doesnâ€™t want you to stand apart from his film and think about his ideasâ€”he wants you to inhabit this world just as the soldiers have descended into theirs.
At times, it seems as though the film is hypnotizing the viewer. Cemetery of Splendor exists in an almost constant state of tranquility, its deliberate pacing and frequent stretches of silence acting as a kind of cocoon. Only Apichatpong Weerasethakul could make a movie that features ghosts, a slowly rising erection from under a bed sheet, and an actor literally shitting in the woods on camera and still make it seem serene and entirely disinterested in disruption or shock. The serenity is overwhelming: rarely is one privileged to see so many people sleeping on film, most memorably in a midfilm interlude that takes us from a movie theater to an image of a ceiling fan throbbing purple, blue, and red, to outdoor shots of homeless people slumbering on the townâ€™s streets, an elating image of compassion. These disconnected but emotionally and visually coherent shots are so transporting it produced a sense of body levitation in this viewer. Watching it I felt not unlike Itt, who after awaking from one of his deep sleeps, finds his senses heightened: at a food market in the center of town, he can smell each ingredient wafting off the dishes and he can feel heat radiating off the high street lamps.
The miracle of the cinema of Apichatpong Weerasethakulâ€”certainly among our greatest living filmmakersâ€”is that he has used film to allow us to see through his eyes: maybe the highest compliment one can pay to a maker of moving images. For the two odd hours I spend in the dark watching each of his films, I feel like I have completely relinquished my own vision, cultural biases, and temperament, which tends to a particular Western anxiety.
And if he can so fully let us into his worldview, then we can begin to understand the disillusionments and fears as well as the beauties that guide him. The scene set in the movie theater at the center of the film functions as the kind of almost subliminally consciousness-raising political gesture he has to use to get his point across. After sitting through the trailer for a crappy, violent Thai horror film that strikes one as the hilarious opposite of the film weâ€™re watching, Jenjira, Itt, and the rest of the audience stand. As Apichatpong has talked about and ridiculed in past interviews, in his country movie theater patrons are lawfully required to stand for the Thai national anthem before a movie begins. Therefore we might expect the music to begin during this scene. But all we see is a blank screen, accompanied by complete silence, while the patrons stand and stare, anticipating something that never comes. Weâ€™re seeing through the directorâ€™s eyes, a poetic manifestation of his disillusionment, which he recently expressed in an interview for Film Comment: â€śIâ€™m at a stage where I doubt a lot about career and country. This movie is like a farewell. I have to make a movie to get away from old memories and try to build anew, maybe in a different country, maybe in a different form of filmmaking.â€ť Like the moviegoers in his film, heâ€™s been anticipating something that never comes, and for too long.