There is always a select group of filmmakers who become critical favorites in world cinema without having much impact on the awareness of the mass audience. One of the foremost examples from recent years is a writer-director from Thailand with the tongue-twister name Apichatpong Weerasethakul. He likes to be called Joe, and so from here on forward that’s what I’ll call him. His films explore emotions, dreams, spirituality, and nature, in an enigmatic style that, oddly, comes off as matter-of-fact realism, until the magic starts peeking out from the edges. In other words, Joe’s films are hard to describe. He uses long takes, painterly widescreen composition, and silence to create an experience unlike that of any other director.
His latest is called Cemetery of Splendor, and it takes place in a remote village in Thailand where a middle-aged woman named Jen, played by Jenjira Pongpas, has come to volunteer at a special hospital that was converted from a school that she had attended as a child. The patients in the hospital are all soldiers who suffer from a strange kind of sleeping sickness. Only occasionally are they able to wake up, and then they seem perfectly healthy—walking around, eating meals, and so forth—until, without warning, they fall asleep again. The doctors install peculiar devices on the patient’s beds—neon-like tubes through which different colors periodically flow—which are supposed to help them dream and prevent nightmares.
Jen is assigned to a young man named Itt who, it turns out, has the ability to experience past history through dreams, and she meets a young woman psychic named Keng, who can read the patients’ minds while they are dreaming, and helps loved ones to communicate with them.
It all sounds so bizarre, and it is, I guess, but Joe’s style is so steadily naturalistic that it counterbalances any sense of absurdity, despite the occasional humorous and even ribald touches.
The framing of the shots, and the beautiful cinematography by Diego Garcia, make the most mundane objects or landscapes emit the freshness of creation as it might be perceived by a newborn. Joe always highlights wonder as an ever-present quality of the ordinary. There’s no music unless someone in the film sings or plays it—there’s a sense of quiet enveloping this little world. As Jen and Keng explore the inner life of Jen’s patient, we experience—without any special effects—the melding and co-existence of two realms, waking and dreaming, that are usually considered completely separate. We also learn, in a funny and mysterious way, that underneath the hospital was a cemetery for ancient Thai kings and warriors, and that their need to continue fighting battles in the spirit world provides an explanation for the sleeping sickness.
It’s clear that Joe considers spirituality and mythology to be subjective affairs, and in that sense more important to us than any literal interpretations could be. As if to emphasize this, there’s a brief scene where Jen and Itt are in a theater watching the preview for an over-the-top cheesy Thai horror-fantasy film, with supernatural beings and special effects, and it’s wryly amusing. The metaphor of the cemetery, in contrast, is both a subtle echo of Thailand’s troubled history of war and military rule, and a deeper symbolism about the unconscious and its effect on our waking lives.
Cemetery of Splendor played briefly a few weeks ago here, and now luckily it’s on DVD. Like the buried kings and warriors, it will haunt you.