A transfixing, witty, and visually creative critique of Thailand’s oppressive monarchy and military rule.
Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s latest curio, Cemetery of Splendour, begins the same way as his last: a black screen, accompanied by the ambient sounds of nature. Yet, this time the sound design is soon overwhelmed by the roar of heavy machinery. What follows is a brief montage of the two at war with each other, a fitting introduction to the theme of the eradication of space and history brought about by modernity. A crane digs up large clumps of dirt from the rural hospital’s grounds, leaving holes that pointedly resemble graves. A line of trees forms a dense background, through which white modernist buildings can be faintly seen. A group of soldiers pace idly on a basketball court, before heralding in a military vehicle.
The film then cuts to the interior of the hospital, where patients are slumbering in wooden rooms, in various states of tranquillity or distress. As we come to learn, the building is a former schoolhouse that has been converted into a clinic to deal with soldiers who suffer from a sleeping illness that is said to be incurable, and are often troubled with nightmares. The hospital is therefore positioned as a retreat removed from the encroaching modernity of contemporary Thailand, a liminal space suspended between history and the future, the east and the west. The plot is kick-started when Jenjira, the (Jenjira Pongpas Widner), who has the job of tending to the comatose soldiers (usually by way of massaging them and making light conversation to keep their minds active), comes into contact with two key figures: Keng, a medium who claims to have the psychic ability to see into the soldiers’ past lives, and serves the duty of interpreting their dreams for the benefit of their families, and Itt, a narcoleptic who soon wakes and needs therapy to become once again integrated into the waking world.
This tranquil overture brings us into Cemetery of Splendour and its co-mingling of multiple planes of reality. As we soon discover, the schoolhouse was built on a site that once housed a “cemetery of kings”, its inhabitants being largely the victims of a war to ensure the supremacy of the town Khon Kawn in Northeast Thailand. The restless spirits of the deceased kings are believed to remain on the spot, hijacking the spirits of the slumbering soldiers to continue their battles in the afterlife. Many of the soldiers, upon waking, say that their dreams correspond with this rumour, though it’s likely that they were merely influenced by the conversations between the nurses they heard while unconscious. Thematically, the re-emerging of disturbed, lingering ghosts serves as a reminder of the nation’s origins, that are being eradicated in the face of large-scale gentrification projects. The many functions of the building, placed side by side in the narrative, is an expression of the wilful blindness and suppression of histories, both personal and political, all of which are rendered permeable by the soldiers caught in a limbo between this world and the many underneath. Indeed, Apichatpong’s vision of modern Thailand is one in which a population kept in a position of structural ignorance by the state is manipulated into fulfilling the desires of a military dictatorship; late in the film, there’s a subtle but significant reference to lèse majesté law, which can imprison citizens for minor criticisms made towards the monarchy.
Despite this heavy backstory, Cemetery of Splendour is a compacted film – structurally, visually, and narratively. The relaxed, meandering tone combined with the casual, matter-of-fact way in which the supernatural is invoked brings to mind the Jacques Rivette of Duelle and Noroît. The story floats along with ease, taking the time to take in the beauty of the natural world and embark on loosely related tangents, and the graceful drift of its rhythms remarkably make potentially heavily charged images register as disarmingly serene. There’s an equality to Apichatpong’s approach to characterisation, a compassionate warmth and respect for all walks of life, that’s increasingly rare to find in modern cinema. The film is mostly constructed of lengthy long takes, subjects composed off-centre alongside vast expanses of negative space; but not organized into halves or thirds, which lends them an unbalanced, off-kilter feel.
As the film moves into its second half, the imagery becomes more abstracted and opaque. In an apparent homage to Tsai Ming-liang’s Good Bye, Dragon Inn, we see the back of Jen and Itt’s heads as they watch a trailer for a vampire movie; the screen goes blank, the whole audience stands, presumably to hear the national anthem (which plays before every public screening of a film in Thailand), but the room stays silent, and after a few minutes the patrons file out. An extreme high shot of escalators and lift transform the space of the mall into a labyrinthine pit of chrome and steel. The sleeping soldiers are attached to fluorescent tubes akin to a Dan Flavin instillation. A low angle image of the sun from underwater becomes obscured as a blob-like fish floats slowly across the image.
These complex, in-camera abstractions sit side by side alongside images of disarming physicality, as in a long take of Jen massaging Itt’s body with moisturizing cream, until he gradually wakes. A man literally defecates into a hole in the woods on camera- static images that ease the viewer into a meditative state of heightened sensory appreciation, almost akin to lucid dreaming (not for nothing did Apichatpong claim in a recent interview, that he’d consider it a compliment if an audience member fell asleep while watching one of his films). Repeatedly, myth and history intrude on physical spaces, such as in one of the film’s stand-out sequences, in which Keng channels the spirit of a comatose Itt, in order to give Jenjira a tour of a forest, telling her of the kingdom that once stood there as if she’s seeing it in the present. The past has vanished, but can be conjured through words and images, the present can be escaped through fiction, images, and, indeed, dreams.
Cemetery of Splendour (2016), directed by Apichatpong Weerasethakul, is distributed by New Wave Films, certificate 12A.