Apichatpong Weerasethakul has created yet another wondrous work of art that seduces the viewer into accepting even its most confounding moments.
Thai filmmaker Apichatpong “Joe” Weerasethakul had already won two major awards at Cannes by the time Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives won the Golden Palm in 2010. With its compelling title and deeply strange imagery, the film won a larger audience than Weerasethakul had previously enjoyed. This was especially significant for a filmmaker who has struggled to find support in his own country. Indeed, Thailand’s military-appointed ratings board intended to censor parts of his 2006 film Syndromes and a Century, an experience that motivated him to join a free speech movement with his fellow directors and withdraw the film from domestic release. Given that his new film Cemetery of Splendor, his first feature since Uncle Boonmee, is his most overtly political, it’s not surprising that it also won’t be distributed in Thailand.
Fortunately for we First Amendment-touting stateside denizens, the magnificent Cemetery is getting a simultaneous theatrical release with the hourlong Mekong Hotel from 2012, which also played at Cannes. And trite as it is to say, it really is a film that ought to be experienced in a theatre. Aside from the big, open frames which need to be taken in on a large screen, this deliberately paced film benefits from the kind of lights-out, phones-off immersion that can be hard to maintain anywhere else. Viewers unable to synchronize with Joe’s rhythms may well dismiss Cemetery’s static camera work as dull and its mysticism as hokey. But while the supernatural aspects of his work usually teeter between transcendent and risible, there’s a muted sense of humor in the mix here that makes it easier to take the film seriously. Unlike Uncle Boonmee, the magic here is almost more banal than awe-inspiring.
For example, one of the main characters, Keng (Jarinpattra Rueangram), is a psychic who among other things can communicate with the sleep-stricken soldiers being treated at a makeshift hospital in Khon Kaen; the conversations she facilitates, acting as a medium between family members and their snoozing loved ones, are sometimes so trivial that they are in comic contrast with the wonder of her power. Likewise, when Jen (Jenjira Pongpas Widner), a volunteer at the hospital and former pupil at the school from which it was converted, realizes that she’s having an encounter with two goddesses in human form, her reaction—awed yet immediately accepting—plays out with perfect comic timing.
But there’s also a point being made, and the political implications are hard to miss. Jen learns that the school was built where an ancient palace once stood, and where kings were buried. Drawing on the energy of the sleeping soldiers (who awake sporadically and momentarily), the spirits of the long-dead kings continue to fight an age-old battle, seemingly draining the men of their life-force. From the barely-disguised origins of the hospital to Keng’s psychic tour of the long-gone palace, Cemetery continually conflates past with present. Despite certain moments that don’t travel well, it’s still possible to pick up most of what Joe lays down, and hard not to be taken in by his gorgeous, dreamy craftsmanship. With a painter’s grasp of perspective and the patience of an ambient musician, Apichatpong Weerasethakul has created yet another wondrous work of art that seduces the viewer into accepting even its most confounding moments.