If Cemetery of Splendour is the last film Thai auteur Apichatpong Weerasethakul makes in his homeland, where repressive censorship has made it impossible to even screen his internationally acclaimed work in its entirety, and where the latest government coup has the country still roiling in economic and constitutional chaos under the rule of a military junta, then let his sublimely surreal new feature speak volumes.
The artist behind 2010’s Palme d’Or-winning Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives promised as much after debuting Cemetery of Splendour last year at Cannes, having spent a decade and a half leading Thailand’s art house charge with his provocative, meditative films. “I cannot show this movie there,” he said of the drama, which opens stateside this week. “It’s no use to go against the government with these things. It’s sad.”
Shot in his hometown of Khon Kaen, in the northeast region of Isan, Thailand, Cemetery of Splendour opens on a curious premise: Soldiers working on a secretive government project digging up the local grounds have fallen ill with a mysterious sleeping sickness that doctors cannot explain. A middle-aged housewife named Jen (frequent Weerasethakul star Jenjira Pongpas Widner), crippled by an injury that’s left one leg shorter than the other, volunteers at the makeshift hospital that houses the sleeping men.
She spends her days tending to the patients, befriending another woman, a psychic, who offers her services to commune with the comatose soldiers as their spirits wander the unconscious world. Their families want to know that they’re content, at peace, what they’d like to eat when they wake up. Other locals come into the clinic for treatment; unlike the slumberers, they’re afflicted by an inexplicable restlessness that keeps them up at night.
At the makeshift hospital, puzzled doctors bring in all sorts of technology to treat the soldiers—oxygen machines to reduce their snoring, colored light tubes whose spectral emanations, they hope, will stimulate the men’s subconscious minds. Jen finds herself drawn to Itt, the only patient who has no family. He wakes up one day and they bond. She tells her American husband the man is their “new son.” He shrugs, dutifully. The cultural divide is a little too vast for him to fully share in her awakening.
Beneath the surface in this tranquil provincial town, a deeply unsettled current runs linking the living universe to the invisible past. Those worlds begin to collide as Jen spends more time with Itt, opening her eyes to the spiritual mirror history that exists on top of her own mundane, modern present. It’s not just happening to her; the colored lights standing watch over the sleeping men bleed out into the town at night, washing over the city as it sleeps.
Weerasethakul’s pacing makes for a challenging experience for the impatient viewer. His static, long-take compositions focus on urban landscapes and lush scenery, luxuriating in mundane everyday exchanges between characters. Snatches of dialogue ebb and flow out of scenes, while the ambient sounds of daily life come alive in the form of the rhythmic whirring of a ceiling fan or the rustling of the wind.
It takes a good 45 minutes to get to the first truly weird and whimsical turn of fate, but that’s when Cemetery of Splendour takes a welcome dip into an oddly beautiful strain of pragmatic magical realism. Snacking on longkong fruit one afternoon in a gazebo, Jen is joined by two pretty young women who seem to know her. They inform her that they’re ghost princesses, moonlighting in human form for the day, and that the sleeping soldiers have been taken over by the spirits of ancient warlords who died at the hospital site, a former palace, thousands of years ago.
Jen absorbs this revelation in hilariously unblinking stride. Later, she tries to make sense of their message: The soldiers are as clueless as to why they’re fighting for those ancient kings in the spectral plane as they were toiling for their government bosses in the conscious world. It’s both the most political and the most deadpan scene of the film, but far from the most bizarre.
Although a cloud of melancholy hangs overhead like the mists of a half-forgotten dream, Weerasethakul finds both poignancy and humor in the natural visual juxtapositions around his hometown. A group of young schoolchildren walk past a roaring Tyrannosaurus Rex statue, through a garden dotted with dinosaurs. Jen and Keng, the young psychic, walk through the once majestic palace grounds now grown over by brush, marked with memorials commemorating more contemporary wars, as Itt’s sleeping spirit guides them from the other side.
And then there’s the beautifully confrontational sight of an unidentified figure, seen from behind popping a squat in the woods. As the camera lingers for a full, unbroken minute, Weerasethakul entreats his audience to witness a truly serene pinching of loaves—of course, the most elementally natural act in human experience, but certainly one of the last great taboos in modern entertainment. Weerasethakul’s gaze nevertheless stays true, transfixed. Birds chirp in the trees overhead. It’s a peaceful scene, really. Who needs an explanation?
The film’s sublime strangeness and political bent collide memorably when Jen and Itt venture to a local movie theater. There, they watch a trailer for the cult horror flick Iron Coffin Killer, an obscure film that in real life has reportedly never seen the light of day in Thailand. Weerasethakul deliberately places his viewer in the audience to watch it along with the crowd, which means this is probably the first time many people will have glimpsed it, in Thailand or elsewhere.
When the trailer ends the entire theater stands up in unison, as all Thai citizens are legally required to do at the movies when the Royal national anthem plays. But as the audience rises to pay their obligatory respects, there’s nothing on the screen: Weeresethakul’s theatergoers gaze obediently in the dark, their eyes transfixed on nothing.
It’s among the more pointed commentaries to be found in Cemetery of Splendour. Weerasethakul grew up in this town, worshiping cinema at the local movie theater. Years later when the Thai government sought to censor his Syndromes and a Century, a film that was nominated for the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, Weerasethakul stood his ground. Rather than butcher it to fit the state’s social and moral demands, he withdrew it from a planned domestic release, likening his art to children.
“If these offspring of mine cannot live in their own country for whatever reason, let them be free,” he wrote at the time. “There is no reason to mutilate them in fear of the system. Otherwise there is no reason for one to continue making art.”
Last October, a year and a half after Thailand saw its 12th military coup in eight decades, Weerasethakul revealed why he did not feel safe releasing Cemetery of Splendour at home.
“Whatever movies we have produced, we don’t want to show it to Thai audiences, because in the current situation we don’t have genuine freedom. I don’t want to be part of a system where the movie director has to exercise self-censorship,” he told the BBC.
“I feel there is more violence in our country than in others that are in similar situations,” he said, “and I am sad to see that I don’t have any power or rights to speak, because I know if I speak, harm will come to me.”