by Kathie Smith
For the past 15 years—over eight feature films and at least twice that many shorts—Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul has been carefully building a sublime universe where the tangible casually mixes with the abstract, sometimes to the point where those two components begin to merge. A magical boy materializes from a small object; a man shapeshifts into a tiger; vapors—either contained by a ventilation fan or seeping from the jungles—embody the secret loves and fears of people; a mother is an apologetic cannibal; and spirits, in various forms, leisurely appear to commingle with the living. Although abstraction has played a large role in all his narratives, the conceptual pull on Weerasethakul’s languid form of storytelling has become much more powerful since his Palme d’Or winning Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010), which was followed by a five year interlude packed with projects, exhibitions and short films (including Mekong Hotel) that quietly exist in spaces unhinged from the conventions of narrative features. Perhaps not without consequence, this period also represents a roiling political atmosphere in Thailand, marked by protests and capped with a military coup that tossed most civil liberties out the window.
Walker Art Center
Director: Apichatpong Weerasethakul
Producers: Charles de Meaux, Simon Field, Hans W. Geissendörfer, Keith Griffiths, Michael Weber, Apichatpong Weerasethakul
Writer: Apichatpong Weerasethakul
Cinematographer: Diego Garcia
Editor: Lee Chatametikool
Cast: Jenjira Pongpas Widner, Banlop Lomnoi, Jarinpattra Rueangram, Petcharat Chaiburi, Sujittraporn Wongsrikeaw, Bhattaratorn Senkraigul
Country: Thailand/UK/France/Germany/Malaysia/South Korea/Mexico/USA/Norway
Premiere: May 18, 2015 – Cannes Film Festival
US Distributor: Strand Releasing
Much of this—Weerasethakul’s leaning aesthetic and the political ambience—speaks very loudly in his subdued but powerful new movie Cemetery of Splendor, a somber tour de force that posits our existence as a kind of suspended limbo. Weerasethakul regular Jenjira Pongpas Widner plays a volunteer nurse (also named Jenjira) in a school turned into a makeshift hospital for soldiers who have fallen ill with a sleeping sickness that limits their waking hours and burdens their dreams. Jenjira settles on caring for a soldier named Itt (Banlop Lomnoi) who occupies a bed in the exact same spot where Jenjira remembers sitting as a young girl in school. Also in the hospital helping the patients and their families is Keng (Jarinpattra Rueangram), a young psychic who reads the thoughts and activities of the catatonic men.
Set in the northeastern town of Khon Kean, Cemetery of Splendor takes a meandering observational approach in and around the hospital—doctors diagnose patients, a speaker holds a group therapy session, Jenjira and Keng have lunch, a backhoe works outside, a man defecates in the trees, paddle machines aerate the water in a lake, and Itt, in his brief waking moments, has dinner and goes to a movie with Jenjira. But Weerasethakul infuses the non-narrative with images, objects and acts of wonder that illuminate (sometime literally) the movie’s mysteriously ambiguous corners. State-of-the-art machines, replete with neon tubes towering over the hospital beds like mini lampposts, are brought in to ease the nightmares of the sleeping men. (One doctor explains that the machines were used on U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan, adding legitimacy to the dubious contraptions.) A beautiful sequence at night juxtaposes these strange glowing tubes in the large communal hospital room with the dim artificial lights on city streets and the surreal sci-fi neon of a movie theater.
One of Weerasethakul’s gifts is to present the fantastical or the impossible with unvarnished simple charm. While having lunch, Jenjira is visited by two goddesses who materialize from a local temple. They thank Jenjira for the offerings she left at the temple and then proceed to explain that the hospital is built on a “cemetery of kings” and that the spirits of the kings are using the sleeping men to fight their battles. The quintessence of Cemetery of Splendor arrives on the heels of this premise when Jenjira, Keng, and Itt (who has fallen asleep) are together in a park. Using her powers to channel Itt while he is sleeping, Keng gives Jenjira a tour of Itt’s sleeping purgatory—an opulent but empty palace that exists only in another dimension—and slowly it becomes unclear who is awake and who is dreaming. It’s similar to the silent transitory sequence in Uncle Boonmee when Jen, Tong and Boonmee silently walk to the cave, but in this case the moment is peppered with conversation and actions that bleed with tenderness, nostalgia and sorrow. Richly abstract, this passage is emblematic of Cemetery’s thematic state of suspension, trapped between past and present, personal and political, and life and death—and where the inhabitants are held powerless.
To the uninitiated, these shifts and plot points might sound comic or even inane, but Weerasethakul’s portrayal of everyday life employs a seemingly endless spectrum of curiosity and possibility. And while some of his other movies use this tactic to contemplate spiritual or personal issues, Cemetery of Splendor feels like a rumination on Thailand’s current social and political situation—a dormant and frustrating state of being, not unlike the sleeping soldiers. Weerasethakul underscores this with a finale that is both haunting and joylful, capturing Jenjira in a static moment of involuntary anxiety but also contemplating the fall of a monolith to a bouncing pop song (a redux from Syndromes and a Century where Weerasethakul’s regular actor Sakda Kaewbuadee makes a cameo).
In many ways, Cemetery offers something of a mirror ending to Uncle Boonmee; the latter where Jenjira settles into unselfconscious relaxation and the former where she is held in a state of alarm. The effect feels more potent; its gentle optimism tinged with discontent and heartache. Although Cemetery of Splendor seems wrapped in obscurity, it also functions with the specificity of an encoded diary buried in a tropical reverie. Few films so unique ever make it to the screen—without a doubt, it’s the cinematic waking dream of the year.