(Dir. Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Thailand, 2015)
Given the number of stories that exist somewhere between varying states of consciousness in his growing body of work, it seemed only a matter of time before filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul confronted the complexities of sleep outright. His latest, Cemetery of Splendour (beautifully titled in English, as always), finds him once again in the northeastern region of Thailand known as Isan where he grew up to tell yet another simple story that conceals layers of metaphorical and spiritual depth. In this case, a handful of soldiers have inexplicably fallen ill with some sort of sleeping sickness, their hours spent unconscious in cots in an abandoned school-turned-hospital tormented by nightmares. In the film’s opening moments, middle-aged Jen (Weerasethakul regular collaborator Jenjira Pongpas) arrives at the clinic to volunteer at the bedside of one patient without any known family members. Despite her own disability (her mobility considerably hindered by one leg shorter than the other), she devotes her time to this lonely soldier Itt (Banlop Lomnoi) as he sleeps and as he wakes periodically.
The film primarily concerns this relationship – the bond that grows between patient and caretaker; intimate, but importantly never sexual. It seems both are in need of quite a bit of healing – physically, mentally, spiritually – and Weerasethakul uses his typically wandering, delightfully casual narrative approach to chart this pair’s personal growth. And, of course, Cemetery of Splendour is unexpectedly about so much more: yet another meditation on rural and urban Thailand (having lived in northern Thailand myself for some time, it was a pleasure to once again see Weerasethakul capture so fully a slice of everyday Thai life down to the imposing foreigner, public workout zones, and street food on a stick), a quiet exploration of Buddhist beliefs in a contemporary setting, and a thinly veiled metaphor for the nation’s recent military coup and subsequent political fallout.
This last point surely accounts for his latest being met with censorship demands in his home country. Sleeping soldiers whose souls are used by dead kings of old to wage wars for them while they sleep is a pretty clever, yet pointed criticism of an unthinking public and military kowtowing to General Prayut Chan-o-cha’s undemocratic grab for power in 2014. And yet, Weerasethakul’s metaphor is far more nuanced than mere current political satire. Couching this scenario in the history of Thailand’s distant past (the clinic rests upon an ancient burial site for former rulers), Cemetery of Splendour also reads as an (lighthearted) elegy for the director’s home country that has suffered decades, even centuries, of political unrest.
The controversial politics of Thailand aside, Weerasethakul’s film is ultimately less concerned with sleeping soldiers than with the personal awakening of one woman. Jenjira Pongpas is a comforting presence in Weerasethakul’s films having worked with him since 2002’s Blissfully Yours and featuring most prominently in 2010’s Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, and yet even more than that film, Cemetery of Splendour belongs to her. Personal details of the actress’ life – her disability, her stage of life, her apparent marriage to American Richard Abramson who plays her husband in the film – are woven into the fabric of the story. Throughout, Jen longs for happiness in love with her American husband who she frequently misunderstands and in friendship with local psychic Keng (Jarinpattra Rueangram) who tends to these patients in her own unique manner, seeks to reconcile her spirituality in an age of increasing disbelief, and desires purpose for her life in caring for the lonesome Itt. Cemetery of Splendour marks the first time Pongpas’ physical disability plays a significant role in her character’s development, and the trajectory of her holistic healing culminates in an unsettling gesture of intimacy shared between the three major characters that borderlines on grotesque (it recalls Boonmee’s equally unnerving catfish sex scene). But, as with Cemetery’s immediate predecessor, this film’s impact shouldn’t hinge on one scene destined for festival circuit chatter.
In comparison to Tropical Malady (2004), Syndromes and a Century (2006), and Uncle Boonmee – a string of three inarguable masterpieces of modern cinema – Weerasethakul’s latest does seem to be a minor work in his oeuvre. Perhaps what is missed most is the noticeable absence of the director’s signature bifurcated narrative structure that brilliantly cleaves his best works into two halves that reflect upon one another. But, crucially, it does still operate in dualities: past/present, young/old, rural/urban, man/woman, reality/dream, and most notably sacred/profane. Spirituality and humanity commingle in the world Cemetery of Splendour paints in a brilliantly casual manner – Weerasethakul is just as likely to show a man defecating in the woods, a sleeping man’s erection that interrupts a trio of women chatting, or a wife of an afflicted soldier using a medium to inquire her husband’s soul about his supposed mistress’ whereabouts as he is to grant us breathtaking static shots of Thailand’s natural beauty or characters’ philosophical ruminations on life. And, while the supernatural is less in the foreground than in his previous work, Cemetery does feature one satisfying sequence that finds the spirits of past princesses appearing to Jen in today’s dress so as not to startle anyone.
In this way, Cemetery of Splendour is unmistakably a work of Weerasethakul. It retains the playfulness and humor of his finest films, moments of incredibly symbolic depth as well as scenes of intentional obscurity that likely mean nothing at all (a late-film bit finds a group of teens shuffling seats on park benches for no apparent reason), and one perfectly cued pop song (DJ Soulscape’s elevator delight “Love Is a Song”) to wrap everything up. Weerasethakul is proving himself to be one of the most exciting filmmakers working today. No one (and I mean no one) makes films quite like his, where the literal and the figurative coexist so naturally, so pleasingly. If his films are deliberately obscure, we can rest assured that the man hardly delights in his own pretension. No, Weerasethakul never begs to be taken too seriously, and those willing to surrender to his beguiling vision and unique perspective on life are those most likely to forever enjoy the dreamlike worlds he creates. Cemetery of Splendour is, thankfully, no exception. And, as if to suggest as much, the film’s final shot is a sustained close-up of an awakened Jen who stares into the distance with wide-eyed wonder. Here’s to hoping there are many more years and films of his to strike up that wonder in his most ardent fans.