Active Ingredients: Warmth and vitality; Political boldness; Jenjira Pongpas
Side Effects: Static visual design
[Cemetery of Splendour will play at Boston’s MFA from April 13th to the 21th.]
Cemetery of Splendour is another beautifully ruminative and sensitive piece by the masterful Thai artist Apichatpong Weerasethakul, the mind behind the Cannes-winning Uncle Boonmee.
Apichatpong has said that this may be his final film shot in Thailand, having become increasingly disillusioned by the artistic censorship imposed by the current regime. Indeed, Cemetery of Splendour is the director’s most pointedly political film yet.
The narrative focuses on a poorly-appointed triage hospital set up inside an old school, and, it turns out, atop an ancient battlefield and burial ground. The patients are all soldiers who have become afflicted with a mysterious sleeping sickness, a sort of metaphorical resistance to their conscription, or a subliminal rejection of shallow nationalism. As the soldiers fall into a deep sleep and are overpowered by dreams, rumors begin to swirl about the army’s true purpose for excavating the area surrounding the hospital.
This narrative sketch affords Apichatpong the chance to obliquely cast judgement on the political climate in Thailand, painting it as a city of ruins atop the splendors of the past. In one sharply barbed sequence, the central figure, a hospital volunteer played by frequent Apichatpong collaborator Jenjira Pongpas, takes a revived soldier to the movies. They sit through a trailer for a ludicrous and insipid Thai fantasy film, then rise for the national anthem. This is a mandated practice before every screening in Thailand, only Apichatpong has replaced the national anthem with silence and a blank screen. This radical political excision, Apichatpong’s own retaliatory act of censorship, calls attention to his country’s propaganda and to the ideas it’s citizens aren’t allowed to see.
Cemetery of Splendour does have notes of bitterness, this emotion isn’t powerful enough to mask Apichatpong’s deep emotional warmth and sensitivity. It’s beautifully touching, for example, to see Apichatpong work so intimately and centrally with Pongpas, playing a version of herself. She’s a very fine actress, especially here, but she’s simply a warm presence on screen, and Apichatpong allows her to exist naturally. She’s become a perfect extension of Apichatpong’s quietly enigmatic style. The film is also wryly funny, with perfect and absurd buttons punctuating certain sequences. That the director is able to allow these moods and tones to coexist is merely one of his many gifts.
Cemetery of Splendour might be a bit more static visually than Apichatpong’s previous two masterpieces, but it has more than enough ideas and affects to keep it from feeling dry. The filmmaker has often utilized slow, long-take middle-shots, but it seems to become a true aesthetic ethos in this film. They’re always dynamically composed (with the eye of trained architect, you can tell) and what they lack in movement, either of camera or subject, they make up for in radical conceptual possibility: Apichatpong’s shots may be quiet and unassuming, but they can catapult us through eons, collapse unseen universes into our own, or gesture towards a sublime and spiritual infinite. It’s truly an extraordinary trick.
Perhaps it’s Apichatpong’s other careers as a video artist and installation artist that serve him so well when conceptualizing features. He has an amazing, studied understanding of how to arrange fascinatingly heterogenous elements into a single, unified vision. His films feel humble, but within this humility reside multitudes, entire worlds to discover.
If Cemetery of Splendour is indeed Apichatpong’s last Thai film, it truly is a shame. His work is so sensitively tied to the specific locations, rhythms and people of an area, as far back as his remarkable debut Mysterious Object at Noon. Apichatpong is an auteur with a distinctive style, yes, but an auteur who thrives on collaboration with the real world and systematically develops opportunities for the locations and people surrounding him to seep into his films.
What the artist may gain in creative freedom he’ll lose in inspiration, in familiarity and a deeply-felt love for his surroundings. Among its many valences, then, Cemetery of Splendour is a bittersweet elegy for Apichatpong’s homeland, and a sobering reminder of the repression that still exists throughout the world.