Cemetery of Splendour (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2015)
Japan has Kiyoshi Kurosawa and Shinya Tsukamoto. America has Julian Schnabel and Elias Merhige. France has Claire Denis. Australia has Jane Campion. Iran has Abbas Kiarostami. Norway has Tomas Alferdson. The UK has Peter Strickland. Czechoslovakia has Jan Svankmajer. Thailand has Apichatpong Weerasethakul. They are, arguably, the world’s ten greatest currently-working directors, and a new film from any of them is worth celebration. While most of the directors named above have in common that their films are often dreamlike (or nightmarish), Weerasethakul has always struck me as the one who works in the waking-dream vein most natively; everything about his films seems to be deeply connected straight back to the Brothers Lumiere and other fin de siecle avant-garde filmmakers. To experience a Weerasethakul film is to wander through a landscape that is at once entirely alien and constantly familiar.
As is always the case, Weerasethakul’s protagonists are the broken and the marginalized. In this case, we have the trio of Jen (Jenjira Pongpas Widner, a Weerasethakul regular), a volunteer at a rural Thai hospital with a lame leg; Keng (Jarinpattra Rueangram in her screen debut), a psychic whose gift keeps her in poverty; and Itt (Tropical Malady‘s Banlop Longmoi), one of the patients at the hospital–a group of soldiers who have been struck by a mysterious illness that puts them to sleep. Jen, who attended elementary school in the building where the hospital now resides, develops a bond with the comatose Itt, whose bed is in the same place her desk was back in the day. The two of them get to know one another during Itt’s infrequent periods of wakefulness. Or at least that’s what we see. Is that what’s happening, or is Jen dreaming all this, with Itt being channeled by Kang?
Weerasethakul’s canvas is full of shots that are pregnant with symbolism, and it becomes obvious relatively early on that all is not as it seems. And yet he keeps things grounded by casting this fantastical story in the most mundane setting possible. As we are experiencing this dreamlike plot, where deities take on human form, soldiers are put to sleep by ghostly kings, and everything is lit by these odd fluorescent towers standing beside each bed, the movie is riddled with shots that look like anything you’d see in your daily life. A patient naps in a wheelchair outside the hospital. A TV infomercial host visits a nearby park to hock a ridiculous product in person. In the movie’s opening shot, a mini-excavator is digging a hole just outside the hospital, and it is a constant presence in the film. Why is it out there digging holes? We have no idea (a few hypotheses are advanced by various characters, but they don’t know any more than we do). Kids play soccer. Jen and Itt go to the movies (and whatever trailer we see them watching, I desperately hope that movie really exists, because I’m dying to see it). It should go without saying, after fifteen years of gorgeously-shot Weerasethakul films, that both the outrageous and the quotidian are presented in such a way that it’s hard to imagine them any more beautiful than they are here. And as good as Weerasethakul’s first film, The Mysterious Object at Noon, is, it still seems to me that this director, who was already head and shoulders above the vast majority of his contemporaries fifteen years ago, gets better with every movie.
If there is a criticism to be leveled here, and it is minor in the extreme, it’s that some of the shots feel just a touch too long. And that’s the only nit I can even think about picking here.
The key to experiencing (one cannot just call it “watching”; Itt says at one point in the film that he is capable of smelling the flowers in his dream, and it makes perfect
sense, because I practically felt the oppressive heat and humidity in some of those jungle shots) a Weerasethakul film is to avoid trying to parse it at all. Leave your cognitive function at the door and just let the images wash over you. Pieces of this movie are so intimate they’re deeply uncomfortable to watch, while others are lighter than air. Every time I see a film by Apichatpong Weerasethakul, I’m convinced he’s hit the pinnacle not only of his talent, but of what film can do. And every time he puts out another one, he proves me wrong. I can’t wait to see what he does next. **** 1/2