Cemetery of Splendour

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(Dir. Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Thailand, 2015)

Wide-Eyed Wonder

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.

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Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives

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(Dir. Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Thailand, 2010)

Circles of Life

“What’s wrong with my eyes? They are open but I can’t see. Or are my eyes closed?” The titular character of Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s fifth feature film Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives wonders this aloud as he approaches death. We might wonder the same thing while watching this delightfully beguiling film. Is what we’re seeing really happening? Or is it merely a dream? And even more literally, since the majority of the film is dimly lit offering only half-glimpsed images, the viewer may very well feel as though his or her eyes are closed. There’s a quiet meditative quality to Weerasethakul’s film – indicative of all his work so far – but it’s certainly never a bore. Weerasethakul somehow manages to engage his audience both consciously and subconsciously – truly a feat of surreal filmmaking.

The film’s primary narrative concerns a landowner named Boonmee (Thanapat Saisaymar) suffering from kidney failure and living out his final days at his homestead in the Isan region of northeastern Thailand. His sister-in-law (Jenjira Pongpas) and her nephew (Sakda Kaewbuadee) come to visit and to presumably (though it’s never mentioned) offer family by his side as he passes away. As the inevitable draws nearer, the surrounding jungle bustles with spirits and ghosts – animal and human alike – that sense his encroaching death. Two such spirits visit him personally to help him transition into his next life. Both the ghost of his deceased wife Huay (Natthakarn Aphaiwonk) and his missing son Boonsong (Geerasak Kulhong) in the form of a hairy monkey spirit – after having mated with one – appear unexpectedly as Boonmee, Jen, and Tong sit down for dinner one evening. The scene provides one of the best and most satisfying images in Weerasethakul’s repertoire – the three living converse candidly and jovially with a translucent Huay and a red-eyed, Chewbacca-like Boonsong. Weerasethakul dispenses with typical questions of how and why this interaction is possible and focuses on what it means for Boonmee. His days are numbered, but Huay comforts him and alleviates some of his fear of dying.

The first half of the film moves along at a steady pace allowing for necessary mediation of life and death. Here Weerasethakul offers beautiful shots of the Thai countryside and lovingly captures the simplicity of rural life. The windows in Boonmee’s home remain perpetually open letting the sun pour over the darkest corners of the house. Tamarind trees line the orchards on his property. Bees swarm around the makeshift honey field shelter where Boonmee and Jen rest. Weerasethakul paints the region of his childhood with grace and tenderness. The evidence that Weerasethakul grew up in Isan is overwhelming; he touches on the region’s violent past mentioning bloody clashes with communists and on Thai attitudes toward migrant workers in the character of his Laotian caretaker Jaai (Samud Kugasang).

If the film’s first half follows a fairly conventional narrative, the second half is decidedly more abstract following a complete detour of an interlude in the form of a fable. A facially scarred princess mourns her imperfections at a secluded pool of water where only a catfish witnesses her sorrow. He assures her of her intrinsic beauty, but she asks him to change her nonetheless. What follows is perhaps the film’s most discussed and easily ridiculed scene. The princess wades into the water, begins undressing, and ultimately makes love to the fish. It is a strange scene, but certainly not one egregious enough to warrant the dismissal of the entire film. Questions should arise: Is the catfish Boonmee in a previous life? Did this act of love bring him good or bad karma? How does the sequence relate to the film as a whole? But, unfortunately too much has been made of the scene, and one would do better to remember it’s a brief sequence in a film full of disparate images and ideas. Uncle Boonmee does not fail or succeed on catfish sex alone as some in either camp have asserted. If anything, it speaks to Weerasethakul’s unique position in contemporary cinema that these images he’s captured spark such discussion at all.

When the film returns to Boonmee, time is rapidly running out for the aging man. He convinces Jen and Tong to accompany him and Huay as they venture into the jungle and into the depths of unexplored caves. This, Boonmee declares, is where he’d like to die – the place of his birth from some unknown previous life. This one, it seems, he can’t recall entirely. Here Boonmee’s life ends in the arms of loved ones both dead and alive. The remainder of the film follows Jen and Tong as they attend the uncle’s funeral and then return to the city.

Uncle Boonmee is a film without definitive conclusions and, as the director intends it, one with innumerable interpretations. It’s a mediation on life and death, but it’s also a film that presumes to know very little of either one. The two comingle throughout the film in the most casual of ways. We quickly learn to accept and even expect the presence of Huay and the monkey ghosts lingering in the nearby jungle. Death is never far from life and vice versa. As with Tropical Malady and Syndromes and a Century before it, Weerasethakul is again concerned here with dualities: the states of life and death, hovering between consciousness and subconscious, and the deliberate construction of the story that splits the two related but different halves of the story. Too, there is an undercurrent duality of traditional spirituality and spreading modernism. Presumably Bangkok city dwellers, Jen and Tong scoff at certain elements of Isan life: Tong is amused by his lack of knowledge of the eastern dialect and Jen quickly dismisses Boonmee’s request to take over his farm after his death. She cites her distrust of migrant workers as the reason. Their adherence to the constructs of modernity comes to a head in the film’s final shot as Jen and Tong stare lifelessly at a TV screen. They desire to pull themselves away to satiate their hunger but can only do so in their imagination. Like the juxtaposition of settings in Syndromes, the scene shouldn’t be read as a rebuke, but possibly the slight preference this filmmaker has over the other.

Rural life is not necessarily romanticized in Uncle Boonmee, but Weerasethakul sure creates a host of beautiful and memorable images in the countryside – the opening shot of a water buffalo attempting escape into the jungle, Huay sitting near Jen’s sun-kissed bed one morning before disappearing, the aforementioned dinner sequence. Each lends itself to Uncle Boonmee’s greatest quality: its ability to make its audience stop and meditate. Very little is straightforward in Weerasethakul’s film – Are we to believe both the buffalo and the catfish were Boonmee in a previous life? What to make of the focus on inter-species copulation? Did Jen and Tong really visit the karaoke bar, or were they too glued to the screen? – but he proves yet again that the best cinema is the kind that demands to be repeatedly viewed and discussed. Weerasethakul has created a work that’s slyly cryptic, but never begs to be taken too seriously. It’s subtly humorous at times and positively engaging throughout.

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Tropical Malady

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(Dir. Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Thailand, 2004)

Human Nature

Idiosyncratic and unapologetically puzzling filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul never shies away from his myriad of disparate influences, and yet his work seemingly exists in a world of its own. There are precedents for bifurcated and otherwise fractured narratives in cinema at large – notably and most infamously Lynch’s Mulholland Drive – but the sharp, yet surprisingly natural divides in Tropical Malady and Syndromes and a Century prove he’s speaking his own filmic language entirely. He operates outside the rigid confines of the Thai film industry, but he unashamedly borrows from his nation’s cinematic past. He cites the cartoons of his childhood as an inspiration for the furry characters in Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives and the melodramatic romances of Thai movies for the central love story of Tropical Malady.

That the heart-on-sleeve dialogue between Malady’s two would-be lovers left Thai audiences unimpressed yet wooed the international film festival circuit perhaps speaks to Weerasethakul’s cunning approach to his art. It begs the question, who are his films for? His fellow countrymen rarely flock to his latest feature (or are prevented from seeing it entirely in the case of Syndromes’ notorious censorship), but cinephiles spread across the globe can’t seem to get enough. Despite the unsurprising pretentions detractors assign his apparently intentionally confusing films, Weerasethakul is not a self-serious artist who ascribes meaning to his own work. In fact, these unlikely influences that inspire him and the subtle humor undercurrent in each of his films suggests quite the opposite. In this regard, his sly approach to his craft – including viewer perception and playfulness with form – recall the great work of Iranian master Abbas Kiarostami who similarly befuddled and wowed audiences throughout the ‘90s.

His first major international success and third feature overall Tropical Malady presents the most jarring break in narrative of his films thus far. Syndromes’ urban second half is an easily recognized reflection of its rural counterpart, and Uncle Boonmee’s abstract back half still continues the first’s plot and characters. But, Malady derails the story of Keng and Tong entirely, providing a mid-film title card almost as if to suggest the beginning of a new film. And yet, the two halves are inextricably connected. The film opens with the new friendship of two young men blossoming into a potential romance. Weerasethakul tells the rather straightforward story of Tong and Keng with tenderness at a graciously steady-moving pace. There’s passion in their increasingly intimate interactions, but reserved and shy Tong (Sakda Kaewbuadee) ultimately denies the more forward and expressive Keng (Banlop Lomnoi) the consummation of a romantic relationship. Weerasethakul hints as much with Tong resisting Keng’s consistent advances by turning them into playful games, but his final dismissive gesture – prompted either by nervousness or outright rejection, Weerasethakul never reveals – provides the catalyst for the abrupt shift in narrative. He exits the frame into the darkness of the night leaving Keng standing alone beneath a dim streetlight – a marvelous shot conveying depths of emotional isolation.

But, then something bizarre and wholly unexpected happens. A disruptive and expertly cued pop song interlude betrays the melancholic demeanor of an abandoned Keng and segues into the film’s poetic second half centered on a traditional Thai fable recounting the legend of a loosed shape-shifting tiger spirit tormenting a rural village and the hunter determined to protect its inhabitants. The names and relationships of Malady’s two leading men are dispensed with, but the hunter is easily recognizable as Keng and the naked tattooed spirit is Tong. With all peripheral characters and visual distractions of modern life stripped away, our two characters alone in the expansive jungle, the heart of Tropical Malady surfaces. In this seeming reverie, an abstraction of the first half’s near romance, Weerasethakul explores the notion of desire and pursuit, subsequently commenting rather profoundly on basic human nature.

Casting the pursuer as a hunter and the object of his affection as prey may at first read as crass metaphor, but Weerasethakul’s recurring Buddhist-influenced, bestial-human synthesis instead conjures a reverential sense of spirituality. Weerasethakul further blurs the distinction between man and beast (the shape-shifter appears alternately as man and tiger), human and spirit (the ghost wields supernatural powers yet maintains a firm presence in the physical realm), and even hunter and hunted as a communicative baboon reveals to Keng that this elusive spirit may very well be hunting him. The spirit certainly taunts the armed soldier throughout – wrestling him to the ground and tossing him down a hill, hanging his emptied bag out on a tree – but a brief shot of Tong’s naked stand-in sorrowfully wailing in the darkened jungle suggests that maybe both are equally tormented by this pursuit.

With Tropical Malady, Weerasethakul paints two sides of the same coin; he unearths the animalistic impulses that cause humans to pursue their innate sexual desires, and yet humanizes the inner beast by affirming that romance is propelled by love. To highlight this unending circle that places humans, animals, and spirits alike on equal footing, Weerasethakul envelops the echoes of the former Keng and Tong in the dense jungle teeming with life. The entire film – but the latter half especially – is an exercise in overwhelming sensory cinema. Aside from the aforementioned song twice used, Malady’s soundtrack primarily consists of the sounds of nature: the impenetrable buzz of insects, the crackle of foliage, leaves rustling in the wind, sheets of pouring rain. Visually, both Keng as hunter and Tong as spirit are at times difficult to make out as Weerasethakul so effectively blends them into their surroundings. The jungle as their pursuit has consumed them.

Though Weerasethakul’s story here is bittersweet – a delicate portrait of love, but a love never fully realized – it’s joyously irresistible due to its seductive imagery. The film is full of gorgeous shots of the Thai countryside – Keng and Tong waiting out the rain, the sun breaking through the canopy of the jungle, a gargantuan tree lit by a host of fireflies, lush, mist-covered rolling hills, a beautiful and haunting shot of a partially illuminated tiger. Even though Weerasethakul’s camera seems to favor natural scenery, he still generously captures the mundane beauty of city life – 7/11, tuk-tuks, fruit stands, meat vendors, a karaoke bar, aerobics in a shopping mall parking lot – glimpses that this writer who’s lived in northern Thailand for a short period time delighted in seeing. Tropical Malady is a film of exquisite beauty – in its visuals, delicate story, and poetically fractured structure. One of the greatest qualities of Weerasethakul’s cinema is that it’s not easy to pin down. Each of his unique films is wondrously open to interpretation and inviting of meditation. Tropical Malady may be his most accessible work yet, but it’s also his most instantly rewarding.

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