Sunday, October 2, 2016
Apichatpong Weerasethakul | Rak Ti Khon Kaen (Cemetery of Splendor)
the sleeping soldiers
by Douglas Messerli
Apichatpong Weerasethakul (writer and director) Rak Ti Khon Kaen (Cemetery of Splendor) / 2015, USA general 2016
Unlike most Hollywood films, Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s works, particularly his most recent, Cemetery of Splendor, is told in something close to layers, each level building up a more and more complex story that finally spills over into mystery and fantasy.
Cemetery begins quite simply with totally realist sound and image of a caterpillar digging into the earth, before the camera moves indoors nearby where we discover an old school which has been converted into a local and, evidently, badly supplied hospital. We never are actually told why the caterpillar is digging—although it is hinted that there may be an ancient city buried beneath the school yard—and we only gradually discover that this hospital has been filled with soldiers that have contracted some strange sleeping illness from which some only occasionally and temporarily awake.
The local families of Khon Kaen also occasionally visit their ailing sons, consulting a kind of live-in medium Keng (Jarinpattra Rueangram), who purportedly calls up the soldier’s previous and current lives to these family members. But she may also be a kind of FBI agent attempting to find more about the soldier’s activities. Clearly the Thai government is puzzled by and afraid of the complications of their sleeping illness.
Itt has with him a book which he has evidently written, a kind of strange diary filled aphorisms, greetings (“Hello”), and complex drawings, which may or may not represent the secret ancient constructions beneath the surrounding earth. Certainly Keng believes that’s what they are, and channeling Itt, even takes Jenjira on a tour of the palace rooms as they walk across the grounds. Although Weerasethakul never actually shows us this “cemetery of splendor,” he still, amazingly, is able to convince us of its existence.
And Itt, quite remarkably, does awaken after Jenjira’s loving ministrations, although he soon falls asleep again at a local movie theater, and later in the midst of lunch with Jenjira. We never are able to discern whether he or any of the others might ever be cured of their illness.
Perhaps in a world which will not admit to its own brutal and violent pasts, there can be no cure; and clearly this film offers numerous other clues that something is permanently amiss. Although seemingly rationally stable, Jenjira nonetheless does visit a local shrine overseen by two beautiful women manikins, who later appear at the hospital as living beings (Sjittraporn Wongsrikeaw and Bhattaratorn Skenraigul) who thank her for her symbolic gifts and claim to be thousands of years old. Jenjira, we discover in this same scene, is also living with a poor American, who has sold everything to remain in Thailand. Everything is something other than it originally seems.
As in all of this director’s films, Weerasethakul offers no simple answers or solutions. Yet, as Justin Chang has written, to call his pictures “difficult,” is to miss the point. He simply keeps gradually revealing possibilities and truths throughout each movie, as I repeat, layering them with details that keep altering the realities around his figures—much the way life is truly lived. The rational and magic, dream and wide-eyed experience, life and death all co-exist in Weersethakul’s cinematic worlds.
Los Angeles, October 2, 2016