One of the best — and humblest — acceptance speeches I’ve ever heard came from Apichatpong Weerasethakul after Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, his rapturous tale of reincarnation, won the Palme d’Or in 2010. Accepting the Cannes Film Festival’s top honor, he said, “I would like to thank all the spirits and all the ghosts in Thailand. They made it possible for me to be here.”
Specters, mostly benevolent ones, appear frequently in the 45-year-old director’s work, which emphasizes the spiritual and the carnal equally. In Weerasethakul’s sumptuous animist tales, souls transmigrate and lust abounds — in both humans and animals. Uncle Boonmee, for example, includes not just visitations from dead loved ones but also, in one of the movie’s playful digressions, a talking catfish that knows just how to sexually gratify a primeval princess. Weerasethakul’s films are also haunted, if obliquely, by Thailand’s violent political past and its still fractious present.
Above all, Weerasethakul’s works are sensory delights, as evidenced by the lush, sun-dappled forest where half of Blissfully Yours (2002) takes place. That voluptuous idyll features among its lead cast Jenjira Pongpas Widner, who has been a regular in the director’s troupe ever since. She is the central character in the filmmaker’s wondrous (and, as always, felicitously titled) latest, Cemetery of Splendor, the release of which on March 4 occasions the IFC Center’s Weerasethakul retrospective. The welcome series spotlights five of the six features he made prior to Cemetery of Splendor. (The one not being shown, the 2003 queer-secret-agent fantasia The Adventures of Iron Pussy, was co-helmed with star Michael Shaowanasai.) Also included is the hour-long curio
Mekong Hotel (2012), another ghost story, this one flecked with blood and entrails. Like the river of that film’s title, Weerasethakul’s movies are always crossing boundaries; his characters
operate in parallel realities.
The seemingly stark divide between sleep and wakefulness serves as the main motif in Cemetery of Splendor, in which the history of Thailand is allegorized as deepest REM slumber. The movie takes place in Khon Kaen, Weerasethakul’s hometown, in the country’s northeast, the region where most of his films are set. Arriving on crutches, Jen (Pongpas Widner) enters a schoolhouse-turned–medical clinic. (A child of physicians, Weerasethakul often features exam rooms in his films, most notably in 2006’s Syndromes and a Century.) Outside this makeshift hospital, cranes dig dirt in an endless, baffling construction project; inside, comatose soldiers are hooked up to glowing, neon-hued light fixtures that recall Dan Flavin sculptures. The devices will help the wounded warriors “have good dreams,” as a member of the staff explains to Jen, a gentle volunteer at the sanatorium.
But others, visiting from another realm, deliver less hopeful news to the middle-aged woman. Goddesses from a shrine that Jen had made offerings to earlier
materialize during her lunch break to inform her that the soldiers will never recover; the long-dead kings buried underneath the clinic, the deities say, must siphon the energy of the narcoleptic infantrymen to restage their centuries-old royal battles.
As is his custom, Weerasethakul addresses his nation’s martial history with the lightest of touches. (Possessed of only the vaguest notion of Thai history, I found this comment by the filmmaker, speaking about his country’s past in the Cemetery of Splendor press notes, a particularly helpful summation: “There have been endless cycles of coups since 1932, when we changed the government system from absolute monarchy to constitutional monarchy. We have a cycle of dreams and a cycle of coups.”) The combatant to whom Jen becomes the most
attached, Itt (Banlop Lomnoi, one of the two shape-shifting lovers in Weerasethakul’s marvelous 2004 same-sex romance, Tropical Malady), utters the most damning line in the movie: “I see no future in being a soldier.” The declaration resounds all the more for having been issued so softly — and is punctuated further by the fact that Itt slips back into a stupor mid-sentence a few seconds later.
That hush is typical of Weerasethakul’s work. In long stretches of Cemetery of Splendor and its predecessors, the actors remain silent while the chirping of birds and other pastoral noises dominate the soundtrack. When not engaged in speech, Weerasethakul’s characters are often busy touching and caressing; for several minutes of Splendor, in one of the director’s trademark long takes, spectators lose themselves in the pleasure of watching Jen lovingly apply lotion to a dozing Itt. The tender treatment is something of a specialty of the characters played by Pongpas Widner in Weerasethakul’s films: A handful of scenes in Blissfully Yours highlight the actress rubbing homemade liniments onto the rash-ridden flesh of the younger male Burmese immigrant she may be
in love with.
While those episodes are nonsexual, Weerasethakul’s films are filled with sublime sequences of al fresco XXX action — or, in the case of Cemetery of Splendor, with gestures that fall somewhere between the platonic and the erotic. Late in the film, Keng (Jarinpattra Rueangram), a psychic who uses her paranormal talents to help the somnolent soldiers communicate with their loved ones, assumes Itt’s spirit; to reciprocate Jen’s kindness, he/she — they? — licks the scars on the woman’s damaged leg (Pongpas Widner was injured in a motorcycle accident in 2003). The act is almost unbearably intimate, and it provokes in its recipient a complicated response. The movie’s unforgettable final shot suggests just how haunted Jen might be. Or not: As ever with Weerasethakul’s films, Cemetery of Splendor is expansive and generous, open to multiple interpretations — a film about unconsciousness that always stirs to life.
‘Mysterious Splendors: The Films of Apichatpong Weerasethakul’
February 29–March 10