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.

      To help with the doctoring and nursing some locals volunteer their help, the most notable of them being a lame woman, Jenjira (Jenjira Pongpas Widner), whose one leg is far shorter than the other and is forced to carry a wooden block and crutches to get around. She picks one young soldier, Itt (Banlop Lomnoi), for whom she cooks and rubs a balm sensuously over his body (in a scene very similar to one she enacted in Weerasethaku’s earlier film, Tropical Malady). Although this outpost facility seemingly has few medicines, it is sent a series of lighting fixtures which change colors throughout the night, evidently—so the Americans claim—helping the sleeping soldiers to be free of bad dreams and supposedly working to heal them. Indeed one the most fascinating of images in this often quite static film, are these glowingly strange penile rods hovering over the sleeping men’s beds.
       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.

      Early in the film, we see one of the hospital’s doctors examining a local who in infected with stomach worms; but the hospital has no medicine to cure him. And throughout the movie, local residents seem to behave strangely, gathering at water’s edge to observe the city skyline across, only to impulsively switch seats with one another again and again as if playing musical chairs. At film’s end Jenjira sits, open-eyed, watching young boys playing soccer across the dug-up field that may one day also put them into a state of permanent forgetfulness.
      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

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