Daily | Cannes 2015 | Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s CEMETERY OF SPLENDOUR

Cemetery of Splendour

‘Cemetery of Splendour’

Apichatpong Weerasethakul‘s quietly incandescent new feature, Cemetery of Splendour, is so serene, so perfectly meditative, that it puts the viewer in precisely the same hushed reverie to which its characters eventually submit, one’s fluttering eyes due not to tiredness, nor boredom, but rather some strange, inexplicable desire to join in with all the collective dreaming on screen.” So begins James Lattimer at the House Next Door. “Moving away from the spatial and temporal bifurcations of much of his previous work, the film fixes its tender gaze on all the myriad things that one specific place has been, gently and often imperceptibly shifting between past and present, legend and modernity, wakefulness and dream.”

“Set in Weerasethakul’s hometown of Khon Kaen, located in the northeast Thai region of Isan, the film unfolds in and around a former school that has since been converted into a small clinic for military soldiers who have fallen into a mysterious coma,” explains Variety‘s Justin Chang. “Here to help take care of the men and make their slumber more comfortable is kindly volunteer Jenjira (Jenjira Pongpas Widner), who’s coping with her own physical disability; with one leg 10 centimeters shorter than the other, she’s forced to get around on crutches. Jenjira watches with particular care over a handsome soldier named Itt (Banlop Lomnoi), whom she starts to feel as though she’s ‘synchronizing’ with.” She “lights a candle for him at a local Buddhist shrine with her significant other, Richard (Richard Abramson), an American who’s recently relocated to Thailand to be with her. The two goddess statues gracing that shrine will later take on human form and appear to Jenjira in broad daylight (played by actresses Sjittraporn Wongsrikeaw and Bhattaratorn Skenraigul), in the sort of delightfully matter-of-fact revelation that requires no visual effects to leave you feeling thoroughly enchanted.”

“Viewers of Weerasethakul’s films will recognize his serene tone and regular actors,” notes Adam Cook at Movie Mezzanine, “but the images here have a very different feel. Sayombhu Mukdeeprom, his regular DoP, was hired to work on Miguel Gomes’s Arabian Nights, so Weerasethakul teams up instead with rising talent Diego Garcia. His crisp, clear cinematography gives the film a sharp sense of the vibrant, textured surroundings. Likewise, the meticulous sound design that permeates Weerasethakul’s cinema envelops the viewer from the opening moments, as the rumbling of machinery does battle with the soft susurrus of nature before the film’s first image arrives.”

Donald Clarke in the Irish Times: “Weerasethakul indulges in his taste—exercised in much of his gallery-based art—for drawing mystery and beauty from mechanical objects: a ceiling fan, compact hydro-electric water wheels. There are also, as is often the case with this director, ancient forces working their way into the walking world. But for the most part, Cemetery of Splendour hugs close to everyday reality. The three main characters stroll about the baking surroundings and obliquely tease out various philosophical issues and matters of utter inconsequentiality.”

“Playful but also transfixing, Weerasethakul’s movies give off a sense of freedom, that the rules of conventional narratives don’t apply,” writes Tim Grierson for Paste. “In Cemetery of Splendour, the odd wrinkles include the discovery that the clinic rests on the grounds of a former kingdom, which allows different eras of individuals to communicate at the same time. But because Weerasethakul always keeps his stories deceptively unadorned, the fantasy elements feel all the more uncanny, the commonplace suddenly being flecked with magic.”

Writing for the International Cinephile Society, Marc van de Klashorst notes that there are several moments that are “genuinely and cheekily funny. A scene in which Jen and Keng have fun with the (covered) erection of Itt for instance drew a lot of laughter from the crowd. Still, it was not all fun and bafflement. There seemed to be a strong undercurrent of criticism of the military junta that took over Thailand in May 2014…. The fact that the military is asleep for most of the running time feels like a dig at the junta as well. And late in the film the criticism is overt, as Jen reveals that the digging that is being done next to the hospital is actually a secret project by the government, and that they will soon have to move away. ‘It’s so secret, they do it out in the open,’ says Itt.”

“Weerasethakul ends the film with a bittersweet sense of joy and optimism in what almost amounts to a big musical production number,” notes Screen‘s Allan Hunter. “Grounds that once saw bloodshed and oppression are now a place where children play football and adults exercise to music. There is the notion that any individual or country can awaken from the darkness of its past.”

For the Hollywood Reporter‘s Jordan Mintzer, “this leisurely paced, semi-experimental narrative features some of the Thai auteur’s trademark surreal beauty, though doesn’t necessarily pack the same punch as movies like Syndromes and a Century or Palme d’Or winner Uncle Boonmee Who May Recall Past Lives.” Still, as Barbara Scharres reports for, Apichatpong “got a rousing, whooping welcome from around 3,000 of his closest friends at the press screening.”

Four out of five stars from the Guardian‘s Peter Bradshaw for this “essay in psychogeography and a meditation on death, the presence of the spirit world in nature and the unquiet ghosts of guilt and pain in the Thai nation.”

Cannes has posted its brief interview with Apichatpong and Patrick Brzeski talks with him as well. Thailand, says Apichatpong, “forces you to see things beyond the ordinary. It’s like we are living not only on one plane of reality, but also this spiritual plane. We have quite a strong influence from Hinduism and animism. Especially in Isan, in the northeast. There is a strong Khmer influence, coupled with the place itself, which is hot, harsh and pretty dry. It forces people to crave for fantasy or the supernatural. I try to look at the mundane and think about how I can use cinema to bring out the magic that’s very familiar to us in this place.”

Updates: “It’s the first film Joe’s made that I felt I mostly understood even as it was unfolding,” writes Mike D’Angelo at the Dissolve, “and the first in which he’s showing definite signs of repeating himself—much of the hospital imagery is familiar from Syndromes and a Century (2006), and it even briefly looks as if Joe is about to end this movie the exact same way he ended that one, with an unexplained cut to a group of extras doing outdoor calisthenics to a jaunty pop song. He doesn’t, thankfully (the actual ending is terrific), but this still strikes me, at least on first viewing, as relatively minor Joe, even if ‘relatively minor’ would be major for most directors.”

For Ignatiy Vishnevetsky at the AV Club, this “might be the director’s least accessible feature—or at least the hardest to tune into. And yet it’s a film of remarkable purity and simplicity, modulated between the earthy and the otherworldy…. Out of all of Apichatpong’s features and shorts, this is perhaps the one that most betrays the influence of the Taiwanese great Tsai Ming-Liang… especially in its surreal gestures of empathy.”

“Joe has long smudged the chalk line between cinema and art installation traditions,” writes Blake Williams at Ioncinema, “and Cemetery represents his most ambivalent yet in that regard, drifting from narrative concerns into lurid light show and back nearly imperceptibly. There may be more structurally dynamic films in his oeuvre, but there are hardly any as serene and subtly moving as this one, which also represents his first digitally-shot feature-length picture.”

The Telegraph‘s Robbie Collin: “In the film’s inspired, wordless central sequence, the camera watches a line of customers leave a cinema and go spiraling downwards on a Dante-like sequence of escalators, while the image dissolves, very gradually, to the soldiers back at the hospital, lying under shroud-like blankets, the light from their sceptre-like lamps fading from red to green to blue and back. This is the same wondrous journey on which Apichatpong sends his audience: inwards and downwards, to a place where the simplest rhythms of everyday life become hallowed and mythic.”

For Jessica Kiang at the Playlist, “the mood Cemetery evokes, the sense of alien wonder that seems not to sink in from the outside but to spring from the bass-deep pit of your own stomach, came to me as maybe the purest expression of cinema as it was meant to be seen: in a theater, in the dark, in the quiet, inspiring and requiring a quality of distraction-free attention that is simply disappearing as a mode of interaction with art.”

Updates, 5/20: “A small, humble film, in fact the most constricted of his full features, Cemetery of Splendour rather than working the surface of story, the surface of space, and the surface of drama and reality, plumbs the subterranean,” writes Daniel Kasman in the Notebook. “It avoids much of the most fantastical and stylized filmmaking the director has employed in the past, and instead has a characteristic humility to the mise en scene, which has a kind of feng shui, arranging people and objects in space usually with two different criss-crossing angles of freedom—say, windows on each side of the frame, and a door behind it. With this understated technique, the image becomes a kind of intersection of flowing energy. Perhaps this is why I always get good vibes from an Apichatpong film even during their darkest excursions, and this one is no different: watching it was nearly therapeutic, a feeling entering my body and spirit while watching as if I were getting a massage for the soul.”

“Amid the enigmatic recollections and truthful beauty, it must be noted that this is also a film that reflects upon the current state of military-run Thailand in a gentle, civilized, yet clear and unflinching way,” writes Kong Rithdee in the Bangkok Post. “A perfect way for art to respond to the overwhelming sense of uncertainty—political, historical and personal—has been found here. It’s not yet clear when the film will be shown in Thailand. Cemetery of Splendour is a Thai film in its scent, touch, as well as its physical and spiritual sensitivities, though it was financed solely by a group of international producers. That takes us back to the central question the film seems to ask: Are we in Thailand awake or sleeping?”

For the Voice‘s Stephanie Zacharek, “Cemetery of Splendor is a lovely, beguiling picture — perhaps not as electric as Uncle Boonmee, or as sensual as Tropical Malady, but possessed of its own shimmering, sleepytime energy.”

“Apichatpong has a sense of humor and a knack for sideways eroticism,” writes Grantland‘s Wesley Morris. “He’s reinventing moviemaking before your eyes. Yet he makes no promises that you’ll ‘understand’ all of what you’ve seen; he adheres to the covenant between a storyteller and his audience that what you’ll see will captivate you somehow. At his best, he rewards the mystery with a grand surprise. If a movie can be praised for being intensely aromatic, that praise should go to him.”

Update, 5/22: “This film bulges with memorable images and starkly emotive compositions,” writes David Jenkins at Little White Lies. “Each edit brings with it a surprise. The ominous sound design transforms the ordinary into the extraordinary, transporting the film to the highest of genre-bending heights. Joe locates images within images, but then has the wherewithal and vision to move the camera ever so slightly to reveal something more—a mode which exemplifies his thematic concerns of how existence is the culmination of various co-mingling realities, some of which we have to take special measure to comprehend and observe.”

Update, 5/25: Saksith Saiyasombut talks with Apichatpong for the Isaan Record: “My grandfather was from China and he relocated to Nakhon Sawan, so my father is actually from there. And my mom is from Bangkok, she is also from a Chinese family. After they graduated as medical doctors, they chose to live in Khon Kaen, to work at the hospital there. At that time nobody wanted to go to the Northeast. When I was a little boy, I spent most of my time around the hospital…. I wasn’t really conscious about featuring the Northeast in my films in the beginning…. It was only later when we had more of a budget that I started to feel that I wanted to move my films closer to Isaan.”

Update, 5/27: Back in the Notebook, Danny Kasman takes part in a roundtable discussion with Apichatpong. But before that conversation starts, he writes, having referenced Rivette‘s Duelle, the genre films of Jacques Tourneur and Fritz Lang‘s The Indian Tomb, “I want to say this is the director’s darkest film, and yet it is nearly all but light—the light of the surface world, under which exists a cemetery.”

Update, 6/6: “Like Apichatpong’s other films, Cemetery of Splendour is a multilayered, entrancing work of art, but its reception also highlights a danger with cinephilia that revels in the pleasures of the trance without recognizing a deeper anguish in the film,” writes Nicolas Rapold, introducing his interview with Apichatpong for Film Comment.

Updates, 6/13: This year’s Cannes “was a festival with its fair share of afterlife stories, some more interesting (Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Journey to the Shore) than others (Gus Van Sant’s The Sea of Trees), but all sentimentally invested in closure and redemption,” writes Dennis Lim for Artforum. “To slyer and sharper effect than ever, Apichatpong merges supernatural phenomena and mysteries with Thailand’s historical phantoms and present-day national traumas.”

Jordan Cronk for Reverse Shot: “Cemetery of Splendour forgoes much of the grotesquery and exotic imagery of films like Tropical Malady and Uncle Boonmee, instead integrating such elements at a more anatomical level (in this and other more appreciable ways the film feels most akin to Syndromes and Century). The narrative moves at a methodical pace, the director’s visual language by now an elegant, organic facet of the film’s formal infrastructure, accumulating dreams, desires, and divine insight along the way. Among other qualities, this may be Apichatpong’s purest work to date, a film of acute spiritual and personal resolve with a boundless sense of natural wonder.”

“What is your message with this film?” asks Coconuts Bangkok. Apichatpong: “I think I don’t have one. I surrender to these kind of questions. But my purpose is to reflect the emotions and feelings one experiences in life. I don’t want anything else than to share my experiences growing up in this country that sometimes you cannot face reality 100 percent of the time, otherwise you go crazy. You have to put yourself into a world of imagination once in a while, just so you can make it.”

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