For the New York Review of Books, Gabriel Winslow-Yost writes about Thai artist and director Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s new film “Cemetery of Splendor.” While the enigmatic horror film was filmed and produced in Thialand, it hasn’t been released yet there due to complications regarding censorship, leading the filmmaker to reconsider making films in his home country. Read the article in partial below, or in full here.
When Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s new film Cemetery of Splendor was introduced at the New York Film Festival last fall, a statement from him was read in which he described it as being set in a country that has gone “from less democracy to no democracy.” (He also said that he didn’t mind if the audience fell asleep, and wished them pleasant dreams if they did—a joke that seemed darker and darker as the film unfolded.) The film—which has just been released in New York and elsewhere—takes place in and around a ramshackle clinic in northeastern Thailand, set up to house a group of Thai soldiers who have fallen mysteriously and, it seems, permanently asleep. Jen (played by Weerasethakul regular Jenjira Pongpas), a middle-aged volunteer nurse with a crippled leg, becomes attached to Itt, one of the soldiers, who has no family nearby to care for him. Eventually Itt and a few of the others manage to waken, intermittently and temporarily, and he and Jen strike up a friendship, half romantic, half maternal.
Weerasethakul’s version of cinematic protest is passionate but oblique. What is ailing the soldiers is revealed before too long: in what seems a bizarre literalization of Stephen Dedalus’s quip that “history is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake,” it turns out that ancient kings, who once lived, warred with one another, and died in this area, have commandeered the life-force of soldiers, and are using them to continue their endless war in the invisible realm of the spirits. The symbolism of his central conceit—patriotic Thais struggling unsuccessfully to wake up, vampiric autocrats sucking the life out of their subjects—is clear enough, though the film itself treats it so concretely, and with such patient attention, that it’s easy to forget. The boogeyman lurking just outside the frame is the Thai government, a military dictatorship since the May 2014 coup and none-too-tolerant before that. “I see no future in being a soldier,” says Itt, in one of his interludes of consciousness; he’d rather be a baker. But it isn’t up to him, and soon after he says this he falls back asleep.
Weerasethakul is certainly an unlikely political filmmaker. Though only forty-five, he has been Thailand’s most acclaimed director for over a decade. His earlier works were driven by more intimate matters: a pervasive romantic desire, a good-natured amusement at the vagaries of the human body, a sense of the world as alive, interconnected, and constantly changing. It is true that one of his films, Syndromes and a Century (2006), was subject to harsh government censorship, but this was an almost comical overreaction: the objectionable scenes included one in which a Buddhist monk plays an acoustic guitar, and another in which some doctors share a drink in an empty hospital room. (Weerasethakul at first refused to alter the film for Thai release, then eventually screened an ostentatiously butchered version in which the deleted sections were replaced with long stretches of black film; audience members were directed to YouTube to see what they had missed.)
His films are delivered with a kind of mystic deadpan. No matter what is happening onscreen—from a dental appointment to the sudden appearance of a dying man’s dead wife at the supper table—his camera never wavers, his long, slow takes never speed up, no one screams, no music swells. There is no distinction between the mundane and the supernatural, and Weerasethakul never fixes on a single tone or meaning, always holding a bit of mystery in reserve.
*Image: Kick the Machine/Strand Releasing. Jarinpattra Rueangram as Keng and Jenjira Pongpas as Jen in Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Cemetery of Splendor, 2015