Film

An Homage to Thailand’s History and Elegy for Its Future

A scene from 'Cemetery of Splendour' (all images courtesy of Kick the Machine Films)
A scene from ‘Cemetery of Splendour’ (all images courtesy of Kick the Machine Films)

The films of Apichatpong Weerasethakul are inspired by a poetics of everyday life poised between two extremes. His films trace the back-and-forth passage between the orderly, earthly time of institutions (hospitals, military barracks, Buddhist orders, farms, and factories) and the rapturous non-time of verdant jungles and forests presided over by phantoms and spirits. The latter zones are havens for passions and fears, deep repositories of dreams, memory, and oblivion. They are the sites where local myths and private desires collide, where inhibited or prohibited erotic longing finds ecstatic consummation, where characters may be reunited with distant ancestors or recently deceased relatives, and where whole vistas of phantasmagorical, ancient pasts unwind in a swirl of kings, princesses, peasants, poets, and demons drawn from Thai lore. These places are more than just a wellspring of imagination in Weerasethakul’s films; visiting them is also something of a deeply personal rite, as he noted recently: “When I make a film I can’t resist going into the forest where these rancid ghosts are because it makes me feel safe.”

Cemetery of Splendor is Weerasethakul’s first feature-length film since his 2010 Palme d’or-winning masterpiece, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives. Cemetery at once feels like a confident step forward and a pared-down return to origins. The film hits upon the range of Weerasethakul’s familiar themes, but with a renewed and different force, one that resonates with the political landscape of his native Thailand more than any of his previous work. It also, contrastingly, sports the goofiest sense of humor of any of his films, and includes cinema’s best boner-in-the-pants scene of this century.

A scene from 'Cemetery of Splendour' (all images courtesy of Kick the Machine Films)
A scene from ‘Cemetery of Splendour’

Cemetery focuses on a makeshift hospital ward full of narcoleptic soldiers all stricken with the same mysterious “sleeping disease,” a condition vaguely like a type of PTSD that submerses the soldiers in deep, vivid dreams. For treatment, the diagnosed are hooked up to therapeutic respiratory machines attached to long, colorful shafts of fluorescent light that hypnotically cycle the blue, white, and red pattern of the flag of Thailand, as well as the neon greens of Buddhist funeral ceremonies. Attending to the soldiers are a nurse, Jenjira (played by Weerasethakul regular Jenjira Pongpas), and a psychic, Keng (Jarinpattra Rueangram).

All the characters, their conversations, the tranquil drift of the everyday that comprises what little there is of the film’s action — all these elements conform to the spiritual contours of the village in which they are set, Khon Kaen, Weerasethakul’s hometown, located in the northeastern Isaan region of Thailand. In Cemetery, owing to Weerasethakul’s singularly passive eye, Khon Kaen sketches an ethnography of its own unique rhythms, lights, sounds, and speeds. In this way it is very much like the last film he made in Khon Kaen, Syndromes and a Century (2006), in which, as in Cemetery, strands of conversation and partial vignettes are picked up and dropped again, filtered through the temporality proper to Khon Kaen and the sleepy flow of the adjacent Mekong River. Scenes in both films float by like this river. Keng, the psychic, sits at the bedside of a sleeping soldier while his mother asks her if she could summon from the spiritual netherworld the week’s winning lottery combinations. Jenjira massages the muscles of a comatose soldier as ceiling fans warble overhead like a soporific. She later visits a shrine dedicated to two ancient princesses; further on, they approach her in a wooded gazebo, dressed in modern garb, thank her for her devotion, and share an afternoon snack with her (Jenjira is only mildly bewildered, occurrences like these being not so uncommon). The princesses calmly inform Jenjira that a cemetery of kings lies beneath the hospital and that “the spirits of the dead kings are drawing on the soldiers’ energy to fight their battles. They are still fighting as we speak.”

A scene from 'Cemetery of Splendour' (all images courtesy of Kick the Machine Films)
A scene from ‘Cemetery of Splendour’

The film’s exquisite languor reaches breathtaking heights in the way it enacts and explores the dream-state that hovers around the soldiers like a glow, inducing a nearly hypnagogic, trance-like effect. In a sequence following Jenjira and a temporarily awoken soldier at a local movie theater, the film bends into experimental territory in ways reminiscent of the work of Peter Tscherkassky. Long shots of Jenjira and the soldier, a nearby encampment, a bus stop, a river embankment, and moving escalators are woven together in a montage, strung along with digitally enhanced light effects and superimpositions. Meanwhile the immaculate sound design manipulates flares of nighttime noises (insects, wind, flowing water, dog barks), conspiring with the shifting images to engulf the scenery in dreams. No filmmaker today rustles the mysteries of the nocturnal — of everything that resides in shadows or on the other side of sleep — better than Weerasethakul.

In spite of all its otherworldly sleepiness, Cemetery is stirred by a decisive restlessness, expressing a deeply personal and political urgency. In this sense, the film doesn’t only maintain an impression of place — of Khon Kaen and its local rhythms — but also of time, in evocations of Thailand’s innumerable ancient pasts and its increasingly grave present. In Weerasethakul’s past films, journeys into dark forests prompt intoxicated trips to the heart of the unconscious, places where sense explodes in a dance of affirmation, animism, and escape. Here, by contrast, the forest is more a site of awakening or enlightenment. Keng, the psychic, acts as a medium for the past life of a soldier to express itself, to guide Jenjira through the forest, which was once home to a palace this ancient soul inhabited. Jenjira, listening in awe, stops from time to time to read her own past, and Thailand’s, in the nooks of the forest path. They take turns: Jenjira points out marks on a tree, a waterline from a past flood; the soldier-spirit, via Keng, describes the old courtly opulence of the palace’s many rooms; Jenjira shows Keng a nook like the one where, as a little girl, she sought cover from Laotian bombs. The walk through the forest becomes a ritual of love and reconciliation. The two women trace with their memories a palimpsest of different eras, repeating and reentering the past and, in doing so, being healed.

A scene from 'Cemetery of Splendour' (all images courtesy of Kick the Machine Films)
A scene from ‘Cemetery of Splendour’

But running alongside this palimpsest is the threat of its effacement. The first shot of the film is an extended one of a bulldozer, flanked by a crew in hard hats, tearing at the earth in a field behind the hospital. The second shot shows several soldiers helping a military lorry back up onto a basketball court (its hoop, which was shown in use during a nighttime festival scene in Syndromes and a Century, has since been dismantled). Together these two shots introduce a quiet but fatal peril underlying the calm textures of the film’s surface. The bulldozer can be seen operating at different points in the film, and midway through we hear that it is excavating land to make preparations for a fiber-optic cable company’s takeover of the building that houses the ward of sleeping soldiers.

The political resonance of these images may go unnoticed by most western audiences. The spring of 2014 saw the rise to power of General Prayut Chan-o-cha, who deposed the country’s prime minister in a coup d’état and effectively installed the royalist military junta that rules the country to this day. This past April the country’s martial law was lifted, but the interim constitution still grants sweeping, virtually unchecked powers to the National Council for Peace and Order of the junta to stifle any party, person, or demonstration that is deemed critical, dissenting, or unharmonious. Weerasethakul has likened the state of his country to a sinking ship; the traces of this state in Cemetery are sidelong, somewhat oblique, but also damning, even glumly prophetic. Just recently efforts were made to accelerate land expropriation policies that effectively entail the forced evictions of locals (not far from where Cemetery was filmed) in order to make way for economic rezoning and development projects. The procession of global capital, excesses of militaristic power, seizing of land, destruction of memory, infringement on the particular temporalities of the villages and cities along the Mekong River — all these struggles are stamped onto Cemetery, even if they aren’t, and indeed can’t be manifested explicitly. Weerasethakul himself has seen friends sent to “attitude adjustment” detention programs housed on military bases. On this account he has questioned himself openly: “Am I an artist when I cannot say honestly? In this film … there are many things I have to revert to something that becomes symbolic, which I cannot say.”

Apichatpong Weerasethakul on the set of 'Cemetery of Splendour'
Apichatpong Weerasethakul on the set of ‘Cemetery of Splendour’

Thus, for Weerasethakul, Cemetery is both a homecoming and an elegiac leave-taking. It’s a monument — at once bright, warm, and sorrowful — in the form of a reluctant goodbye. He has intimated that this is the last feature film he will make in his country for some time. As such, its blend of grief and wonder — articulated in its title and palpable throughout its 122 ravishing minutes — makes for a poignant farewell.

Cemetery of Splendour plays at the New York Film Festival at the Film Society of Lincoln Center (70 Lincoln Center Plaza, Upper West Side, Manhattan) at 9pm on October 1 and at an as yet unannounced time on October 11 as part of the festival’s Encore screenings.

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