When Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s new film Cemetery of Splendor was introduced at the New York Film Festival last fall, a statement from him was read in which he described it as being set in a country that has gone “from less democracy to no democracy.” (He also said that he didn’t mind if the audience fell asleep, and wished them pleasant dreams if they did—a joke that seemed darker and darker as the film unfolded.) The film—which has just been released in New York and elsewhere—takes place in and around a ramshackle clinic in northeastern Thailand, set up to house a group of Thai soldiers who have fallen mysteriously and, it seems, permanently asleep. Jen (played by Weerasethakul regular Jenjira Pongpas), a middle-aged volunteer nurse with a crippled leg, becomes attached to Itt, one of the soldiers, who has no family nearby to care for him. Eventually Itt and a few of the others manage to waken, intermittently and temporarily, and he and Jen strike up a friendship, half romantic, half maternal.
Weerasethakul’s version of cinematic protest is passionate but oblique. What is ailing the soldiers is revealed before too long: in what seems a bizarre literalization of Stephen Dedalus’s quip that “history is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake,” it turns out that ancient kings, who once lived, warred with one another, and died in this area, have commandeered the life-force of soldiers, and are using them to continue their endless war in the invisible realm of the spirits. The symbolism of his central conceit—patriotic Thais struggling unsuccessfully to wake up, vampiric autocrats sucking the life out of their subjects—is clear enough, though the film itself treats it so concretely, and with such patient attention, that it’s easy to forget. The boogeyman lurking just outside the frame is the Thai government, a military dictatorship since the May 2014 coup and none-too-tolerant before that. “I see no future in being a soldier,” says Itt, in one of his interludes of consciousness; he’d rather be a baker. But it isn’t up to him, and soon after he says this he falls back asleep.
Weerasethakul is certainly an unlikely political filmmaker. Though only forty-five, he has been Thailand’s most acclaimed director for over a decade. His earlier works were driven by more intimate matters: a pervasive romantic desire, a good-natured amusement at the vagaries of the human body, a sense of the world as alive, interconnected, and constantly changing. It is true that one of his films, Syndromes and a Century (2006), was subject to harsh government censorship, but this was an almost comical overreaction: the objectionable scenes included one in which a Buddhist monk plays an acoustic guitar, and another in which some doctors share a drink in an empty hospital room. (Weerasethakul at first refused to alter the film for Thai release, then eventually screened an ostentatiously butchered version in which the deleted sections were replaced with long stretches of black film; audience members were directed to YouTube to see what they had missed.)
His films are delivered with a kind of mystic deadpan. No matter what is happening onscreen—from a dental appointment to the sudden appearance of a dying man’s dead wife at the supper table—his camera never wavers, his long, slow takes never speed up, no one screams, no music swells. There is no distinction between the mundane and the supernatural, and Weerasethakul never fixes on a single tone or meaning, always holding a bit of mystery in reserve.
Descriptions of his work slide inexorably into paradox: it is sincere and ironical, improvisational and elaborately structured, earthy and uncanny at the same time. His 2010 Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives—surely among the least likely winners of the Palme d’Or at Cannes, and the first from Thailand—turned the last days of its title character, terminally ill, into the frame for a shaggy succession of memories, fantasies, and paranormal visitations; it was at once one of the goofiest movies about death and mourning ever made, and the saddest movie ever to feature a catfish-on-human sex scene. Its predecessor, the nearly perfect Syndromes and a Century, inspired by the courtship of Weerasethakul’s parents, was a film in two parts that told the same story twice (two doctors meet, first in a quaint rural hospital, then in a gleamingly modern urban one) without ever really telling it at all: an aching romance in which the love affair never quite gets off the ground.
Cemetery of Splendor is similarly incongruous. By far the most nakedly political film of Weerasethakul’s career, it is a gentle, open-hearted story of human connection, and it is underlain at every moment by rage and dread. Midway through the film, the two main characters, Jen and Itt, go to the movies. In a slick modern multiplex, they watch a trailer for a schlocky horror flick, a fevered montage of impalements, heaving breasts, and prehensile tongues. This sequence is as close to a direct statement of intent as you’ll ever find in a Weerasethakul film. Cemetery of Splendor has no gore, no bug-eyed demons or shrieking victims, and it makes time for flirtatious conversations with the local librarian, a long sales pitch for a miracle skin cream, and several public group workouts (a charmingly inexplicable staple of this filmmaker’s work). But it too is a horror movie, all the more unsettling for its poky, daylit geniality.
There is a scene early on of the soldiers eating in an auditorium, just after they have woken up for the first time. It is a bright, sunny room, and the soldiers are smiling, chatting with their friends and family. As far as they know, their mysterious ordeal has ended. Itt and Jen are just beginning to get acquainted. And then one of the soldiers simply passes out into his food; his face hits his plate with a little clatter. The reactions are typically restrained—the man across the table lets out a high-pitched giggle of disbelief, Jen and Itt look at each other expressionlessly—but the effect is chilling: relief has fled, and fear has filled the room.
Between features Weerasethakul is a prolific maker of short films and installations, and several of them anticipate Cemetery’s turn toward politics. The hour-long Mekong Hotel (2012, but receiving a belated US premier alongside his new film at the IFC Center in New York) is a ramshackle amalgam of fiction and documentary, mixing behind-the-scenes sequences with his actors (including Jenjira Pongpas) and bits of a supernatural story about cannibalistic spirits, largely consisting of shots of his actors smeared with blood and chewing gorily at various corpses—all of it set to lilting acoustic guitar. Its alternation of low-key charm with sudden undercurrents of violence is surprisingly effective, and not all the violence is fictional: in one scene Pongpas wistfully recalls her girlhood military training, required by the government.
The much shorter Phantoms of Nabua, one of the highlights of Weerasethakul’s 2011 “Primitive” installation at the New Museum, is an extraordinarily beautiful vision of play and art in the shadow of destruction. Plotless and nearly abstract, it shows a group of young men playing soccer at night with a flaming ball, in front of a movie screen showing a lightning storm. Soon the screen, along with much of the field, catches fire and burns down, and the game ends. Nabua, a village near the Laotian border where Uncle Boonmee and all of the works in “Primitive” are set, was the site of a brutal military occupation for several decades starting in the mid-1960s.
Cemetery addresses Thailand’s catastrophes a little more directly, though still mainly by sideways glance and implication. Backhoes are digging up the fields around the clinic, and no one knows why; it may be for fiber-optic lines, or for a secret government project, “so secret they’re digging right out in the open.” Near the end of the movie, in an echo of Phantoms, we see some children playing soccer on a field torn into vertiginous hillocks and valleys by those backhoes; no one comments on the complete absurdity of the game. After Jen and Itt watch that trailer at the movie theater, they and the rest of the audience stand for the royal anthem, which is played before every movie in Thailand; but we hear nothing, just silence, as the moviegoers stare blankly ahead with hands over hearts, and then the soft, insidious whir of the ceiling fans in the clinic, above the sleeping soldiers.
Later, Jen walks with Keng, a sunny young woman who is also the local psychic, through a dilapidated riverside park, while Itt sleeps in a nearby pavilion. Keng has, she says, allowed herself to be inhabited by Itt’s spirit, to allow him to talk more with Jen. As they meander along, Keng/Itt describes the invisible splendors of world in which he spends his sleeping life—the palaces of the undead kings. He makes Jen step carefully over thresholds, and pause to admire gold and jewels, none of which anyone else can see. She counters with descriptions of the park itself, its restoration, its partial destruction by a recent flood.
It’s an astonishing sequence, at first ridiculous and then more and more affecting, its cumulative power entirely dependent on Weerasethakul’s unique way of committing to his material without ever quite tipping his hand. At the end, they sit on a bench to rest, and Jen shows Keng/Itt her surgically repaired leg, ten centimeters shorter than the other (Pongpas did in fact injure it in a motorcycle accident). Her companion kneels down and massages the scarred limb (“It’s therapy… Trust me”), then begins to kiss it. Jen laughs at first, embarrassed, then weeps.
Jen is optimistic, devout, and devoutly patriotic, and part of the drama of this relentlessly understated film is her slow, almost invisible awakening to the malevolence of the world around her—her realization of the hopelessness of her friend’s situation, of how wantonly his life is being wasted. She plies him with coffee, herbal remedies, and spicy food, trying desperately to keep him awake. “When you’re asleep,” she says, “even the bright city lights feel dull.”
She prays to a pair of local goddesses on his behalf, and receives a visitation: they come to her at a picnic table, in the guise of fashionable young women out shopping. “We came to tell you,” they say, “that those soldiers will never recover.” And they don’t. The film’s final shot is of Jen, sitting outside the clinic, her eyes wide open, unblinking, her face a frozen mask. Cemetery of Splendor has yet to be shown in Thailand, and Weerasethakul has told interviewers he will no longer make his films in his native country.
Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Cemetery of Splendor is now playing in select theaters.