On Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Cemetery of Splendor

A good friend of mine thinks Apichatpong Weerasethakul, winner of the 2010 Cannes Palme d’Or with Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, is an invention of contrary film critics with nothing better to do than big up an obscure Thai filmmaker. While I do think that his ascendancy to the front-lines of world art cinema has an element of serendipity — he was the right exotic cinéaste in the right place at the right time for a certain cadre of aspiring influencers — I also find there is genuine value in Mr Weerasethakul’s leisurely cinema, and that his slow-moving, dreamy rhythms provide more than adequate counter-programming for these days of fast-moving images surrounding us at every moment.

Formally the sixth feature of a protean career that encompasses art installations and short and mid-length experiences, Cemetery of Splendor is the director’s first full-length film since the highly controversial Palme d’Or awarded by the jury led by Tim Burton, but it’s also a film that streamlines further the director’s work towards a more accessible entrance point for non-aficionados. This poetic, somnambulist tale of an unlikely friendship struck between two volunteers and a patient at a rural hospital develops simultaneously as a slow-motion burlesque and an allusive fable of life, following Mr Weerasethakul’s recurring theme of the constant intertwining of past and present, history and society, magic and reality.

The patient (Banlop Lomnoi) is one of a series of Thai soldiers who have been struck with a “sleeping sickness”, a kind of catalepsy into which they fall and from which they awaken at random intervals. Volunteer Jen (regular collaborator Jenjira Pongpas Widner) learns from the psychic Keng (Jarinpattra Rueangram) that the hospital is built on the site of a former palace and that the sleeping soldiers are “feeding” the spirits of the kings and warriors who still inhabit the place; at equally random intervals, some of those spirits assume human form and share fruit or chat with Jen, who also remembers the site’s previous incarnation as a school.

While a lot of the film’s socio-political subtext seems to pass by European viewers unable to grasp specific references to Thai society and culture, there’s still a sense of simplicity and tradition unfolding through Cemetery of Splendor, suggesting a director growing more comfortable in his work and his identity. The split-narrative “games of two halves” of previous films such as his breakthrough Tropical Malady or Syndromes and a Century are abandoned here as they had been in Uncle Boonmee, the multiple possibilities being seamlessly integrated into a single narrative line, and the casual interruptions of reality by fantasy suggest Jia Zhang-ke’s occasional singularities. The framing of the shots is exceedingly composed, with an inherently Tati-esque sense of staging and framing: things happen within the deceptively simple frame without DP Diego García’s camera necessarily drawing attention to it, but you can sense a precise intelligence directing from outside the tempo and development of each scene.

What’s probably more surprising about Cemetery of Splendor — and Mr. Weerasethakul’s oeuvre as a whole — is just how much the alleged obtuseness of his work is nowhere to be found. This is by no means “easy” or “disposable” cinema, but neither is it as inaccessible or as difficult as it is alleged. Quite the opposite: it’s light and airy, almost to the point of disintegrating, and its apparent quirkiness becomes its greatest strength as soon as you realize the naturalness, the ease with which it is woven into the tale’s fabric. This is not gratuitous exoticism, and Mr. Weerasethakul is certainly not pandering to international audiences: its dreaminess is universal rather than specifically Thai, merely a reflex of a society where ancestry and tradition remain more present, and grounded, than abroad. Maybe what we respond to in these deceptively oblique confections is precisely that sense that Apichatpong Weerasethakul is more attuned to the magic of the humdrum day-to-day life than we are.

TH, GB, FR, DE, MY, KR, MX, US, NO, 2015, 121 minutes
CAST Jenjira Pongpas Widner, Banlop Lomnoi, Jarinpattra Rueangram; DIR/SCR Apichatpong Weerasethakul; DP Diego García; PROD DES Akekarat Homlaor; COST DES Phim U-mari; ED Lee Chatametikool; PROD Mr. Weerasethakul, Keith Griffiths, Simon Field, Charles de Meux, Michael Weber and Hans W. Geißendörfer; Kick The Machine Films and Illuminations Films in co-production with Anna Sanders Films, Geißendörfer Film-und Fernsehproduktion, Match Factory Productions, ZDF/ARTE, Astro Shaw, Asia Culture Center/Asian Arts Theatre, Detalle Films, Louverture Films and Tordenfilm


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