Apichatpong Weerasethakul returned to the Croisette this morning in a much-discussed Un Certain Regard spot. He was greeted with rapturous applause by an audience that had started lining up two hours before the film. There was no doubt: the world premiere of Thai Joe’s (his self-assigned moniker) new film Cemetery of Splendour was an event. This brings with it great expectations of course, and much like his equally awaited colleague Miguel Gomes in the Directors’ Fortnight (unspooling the second part of his Arabian Nights trilogy yesterday as well; what a day for cinema), he absolutely delivered. Cemetery of Splendour is an intriguing film that definitely requires a lot of mulling over and second and third viewings to fully grasp, but even on the surface there is already so much to like that the only conclusion can be that Weerasethakul still has it.
Master of the contemplative, Weerasethakul has actually created a narrative of sorts for Cemetery of Splendour. Mind you, we are not talking three-act structure here, but there is something resembling a conventional story. In his hometown of Khon Kaen, a school has been converted into a hospital for the military after a number of soldiers have contracted a mysterious disease that has them asleep all the time. At the start of the film, Jen (frequent collaborator Jenjira Pongpas Widner) starts volunteering at the hospital, taking care of everyday business like washing the patients, but also comforting them by talking to them. Soon after, a medium by the name of Keng (newcomer Jarinpattra Rueangram) also joins, and the two women develop a friendship. Some patients, most noticeably Itt (Banlop Lomnoi), sometimes wake up for a short while, only to fall asleep at the drop of a hat again. During these small bouts of lucidity, Itt and Jen contemplate the state he is in. One day, two goddesses that Jen prays to at a local temple come alive, and tell her that the school/hospital is built on an old cemetery of kings, where the ghosts of those kings still do battle. They draw the energy from the people ‘on top’ of them, hence the sleeping. Through Keng, a sleeping Itt takes Jen on a tour through the old royal palace grounds. We just see trees and dirt, but for Jen the former splendour of the palace comes alive.
Sounds almost conventional, right? Of course, this being Weerasethakul, there are still long stretches where not much seems to be going on, or things happen that require some more explanation or thought (a woman squatting to relieve herself for instance may have some symbolic meaning, but it flew right by this reviewer for now). But several of these moments, and this may come as a shock to some of Weerasethakul’s fans, were genuinely and cheekily funny. A scene in which Jen and Keng have fun with the (covered) erection of Itt for instance drew a lot of laughter from the crowd.
Still, it was not all fun and bafflement. There seemed to be a strong undercurrent of criticism of the military junta that took over Thailand in May 2014. “Save yourself for a better future,” Jen tells Keng at one point. “When we look at the kingdom, there are rice paddies, and not much else,” she says at another. The director is clearly not happy with the current political situation in his country, something he himself stressed in a short speech before the film. The fact that the military is asleep for most of the running time feels like a dig at the junta as well. And late in the film the criticism is overt, as Jen reveals that the digging that is being done next to the hospital is actually a secret project by the government, and that they will soon have to move away. “It’s so secret, they do it out in the open,” says Itt, all but spelling out that the offences of the current Thai government are not exactly covert. Still, Weerasethakul is a much too sensitive and sensible man to be harsh (as opposed to the more straightforward attack Gomes is currently fielding in the Quinzaine), so a lot is hidden in metaphor. This makes Cemetery of Splendour a film that probably needs to be revisited a couple of times to get a fuller grasp. In the meantime, we are still left with a mesmerizing and humanistic film, with enough mystery to want to dig a little deeper. A film that will swirl around the mind for some time, i.e., a typical Apichatpong Weerasethakul film.
And yes, this should have been in competition.