A Shared Memory: Talking to Apichatpong Weerasethakul about "Cemetery of Splendour"

The Thai director follows up his Palme d’Or winner “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives” with the best film in Cannes 2015.
Daniel Kasman

When Apichatpong Weerasethakul's new film premiered at Cannes, it was like someone just opened the window and let some much-needed fresh air into the festival. Relegated in a detail of obscure festival politics to the second-tier Un Certain Regard section, where in recent years such too-adventurous works like Jean-Luc Godard's Film socialisme and Claire Denis's Bastards were shunted aside, I came to Cemetery of Splendour assuming the director was going to follow-up on his Palme d'Or of Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives with something as grand if not grander, and as bizarre if not even more bizarre. I should have known Apichatpong would move in mysterious ways and defy expectations.

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. The film's charged setting is emblematic of its approach: set in what was once a school, the builds are now used as a temporary hospital, with construction begun outside for yet another incarnation. We later learn that eons ago this location was a "cemetery of kings" upon which battles were fought for supremacy of the Khon Kaen town in the northeast of Thailand. This casual mix of nostalgia and foreboding in the superimposition of the functions of a low-key building over time is a metonym of a people's burial of histories, a suppression pushed down into the dark recesses of dreams, nightmares and their phantom worlds.

As our surrogate to walk the brittle surface world of Khon Kaen, so permeable by that which lays below, Apichatpong finally dedicates a film to his long-time actress Jenira Phongas Widner, whose history with the filmmaker is now feeling inseparable, like that of Lee Kang-sheng with Tsai Ming-liang. Jenira volunteers at the hospital and is the subject whose daily life, dreams, and imagination form the surface tapestry of Cemetery of Splendour. Below lurks demons: the hospital in fact houses Thai soldiers beset by an unsolvable sleeping sickness, and indeed the lines between dream and history, nightmare and memory are subtly transgressed by the film and made almost indistinguishable. When the doctors realize nothing can be done to wake the soldiers, they are hooked up into glowing machines that help them "sleep with good dreams." If such machines are needed, what dreams are they having, and what is it they saw when awake?

Yet as is appropriate for a film whose surface world lays dormant, Cemetery of Splendor looks and feels like the Apichatpong we love, with its ease of storytelling, the effusion of warm compassion, the slippage between the real world and others, and an aura of comfortableness in time and environment. These come across all the more in his new movie with its tidy smallness, restricted as it is in movement around the hospital and a few excursions walking through the director's hometown. 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 scène, 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.

But despite all these characteristic qualities of relaxation and humming empathy, Cemetery of Splendour feels like it has a tremendously dark, sad undercurrent. As in Jacques Rivette's Duelle, which shows us a thriller's conspiracy turned inside out, or like the haunting off-screen space of the genre films of Jacques Tourneur, in Cemetery of Splendour we never seem to see the darkness, it is only referred to in mentions of dreams, alternate histories, past lives and fears. (Such a world leaks every-so-slightly into ours: giant dinosaur statues prey around the city, and the soldiers' sleep machines are like Dan Flavin installations of tubular neon color.) With talk of an underworld—the soldier Jen is taking care of leaves behind a notebook full of cryptic maps—one thinks of Fritz Lang's The Indian Tomb and how it revealed beneath its lavish palace a series of catacombs spelling doom. A characteristic scene has Jen and a new friend, a young psychic woman, go for a walk, but the psychic is in fact channeling the sleeping spirit of the soldier, who sees himself in a sprawling palace in an ancient Khon Kaen. We do not see it, nor does Jen, but she and the psychic tour this palace by walking through the park, the young woman telling Jen what she sees of this hidden world laid over, under or inside the visible one.

This is the kind of buried allegory Apichatpong is dealing with, working in a country where criticism of the government is highly punitive. In one shockingly audacious scene, we see the following: Jen and her soldier at a movie theatre watching an endlessly violent and fantastic trailer for Iron Coffin Killers before they have to stand for the king's anthem. But the anthem never comes, and the audience is stranded standing in darkness in hung silence. Cut to: men carrying the now-asleep soldier out of the cinema, the camera panning down to follow them through the multiplex's array of escalators—the most modest yet startling evocation of a journey to an underworld.

Such is the film's simplicity, as well as its suggestions of a sombulant population, whether soldiers strangely stuck in narcoleptic stupor, or even Jen herself, who though caring for one with such an unreal malady she too seems to start navigating her childhood, her old accident that hobbled her right leg, and her well-lived life in Thailand. (As in the past, many of her personal memories and history are used by the screenplay.) The conversations Jen has with the soldier and with the young psychic, who attends the hospital as a therapeutic way for families to communicate with their silent, sleeping soldiers, are lovely to behold, a middle-aged woman easily befriending a younger generation. Such is the humble smallness of the movie, its feeling of expansive imagination but wholly limited space, that conversations such as these form its emotional, fantastical, and political core.

There is no better shot, no better scene in the entirety of this year's Cannes than a simple medium shot of Jen sitting at a picnic table eating longkang fruit. A woman approaches and is invited to eat and talk, then another woman. They two women thank Jen for making them offerings at the local shrine, and we and Jenira realize they are goddesses appearing in their, as they say, "normal street wear." The beaming wonder of this, of a mere talk between three women in a banal plaine air frame, the charge of spirit and possibility, the gratitude Jenira feels—this shot is Apichatpong's supreme talent at its most pure and great. Whether her offer to the shrine—asking for assistance for her mangled leg, for her new American husband, and for her adopted soldier—is really heard is one of the elements of completion the film's easeful mystery leaves unresolved. Certainly, in a moving climax, Jenira and her leg receive a kind of benediction, which the director follows with an explosion of music and public calisthenics, much as in his 2006 masterpiece Syndromes and a Century, which also draws upon his parents' history as clinical doctors. But the ending after this small loveliness is devastating, a single final image as doubly powerful, indicting, and forlorn because of the film's signature softnesses and occluded mysteries. "Save yourself for a better future," Jenira earlier pleads of the sleeping soldier. 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.


After the premiere of his film in Cannes, I was able to participate in a roundtable conversation with the director whom I interviewed in 2010 about Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives and in 2012 about Mekong Hotel and Ashes.

QUESTION: This film takes place in your hometown. How did it feel to return home?

APICHATPONG WEERASETHAKUL: I visit it from time to time because my mother lives there, but have not visited as a working place in some time. I shot some 50% of Syndromes and a Century there, but not the film entirely. So to go back there was to actually try to look for memory, to see what’s changed. In the end, I choose to film some places that had not changed very much. It was quite emotional to go back and work in the place that inspires you.

QUESTION: How much of the hospital is like the one where your parents worked?

APICHATPONG: The real one has changed so much, it’s become concrete...but the one in the movie is a school, so we try to set it up like how I remembered. It’s a mixture of place, an experimentation mixing place. I didn’t really study in that kind of school but the school reminded me of my home that I spent the first fifteen years of my life in, a wood house like that. So it’s a home, school and hospital in one.

QUESTION: The film has a lot to do with the military and your attitude towards the military in Thailand. Can you say something about your interest in the subject and what you want to express in the film?

APICHATPONG: I think it’s pretty symbolic and a pretty gentle attitude, because the presence of the military soldiers is very strong. Especially lately. We have more high ranking generals than they have in the United States. So think about it. A lot of the biggest budgets go to the military. Growing up, you feel this presence and power. At the same time, I feel very attracted to uniforms, sexual attraction: uniform, power. Since Tropical Malady and other art projects I sometimes feature soldiers as a symbol of power and this attraction. It’s a push and pull, because I hate this power; what I don’t like is that the military is always playing in politics, but for this film it’s about that, it’s about the power and the power that is put to sleep. The dormancy of power. At the same time, there’s another one: underneath.  

QUESTION: This is quite a different film from Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives. It reminded me of Syndromes and a Century. Are you coming back to your roots?

APICHATPONG: Strangely, yes. When I shot it, it felt like Syndromes and a Century in terms of the feelings towards... I don’t know, happiness. Because it’s my hometown, it’s the place that I know, so there’s this sense of familiality. At the same time, even though for me the movie talks about sadness and about oppression, about not knowing whether you are asleep or wake, and being suffocated by that, by the dream—even then I still felt happiness in working on this film.

QUESTION: Is going back to those roots that related to Uncle Boonmee’s success?

APICHATPONG: Uncle Boonmee is heavily a quotation of cinema, for me. But for this film, it is a quotation of now, and the remembering of a particular place. For me, I will say it’s more personal. Because it’s the same person, the same universe. It’s a little treatment of time, similar, the treatment of the sorrow of aging, because I’m getting older and my actress is getting older. It’s the same exercise trying to get better—all the jokes about rejuvenation, the cream, all these things, healing. I think it’s in the same vein, but more personal.

QUESTION: Can you talk about how you work with your regular actress Jenjira? What’s that relationship like creatively?

APICHATPONG: I've work with her for fifteen years, and I am most attracted by her memory. She remembers so much. Not only cinema but for art projects I work with her about memory. This film is actually an accumulation from other projects on which we worked together, I feature her writing, her diaries in other art works, and her legs, also in the film and video. The progress of her healing—at one point in the video art I make the point of showing she has metal sticking out of her leg. All these changes. Next month she will have an operation. Perhaps in the next film she will walking normally! So it’s like a record of her.

QUESTION: It’s not only her memory, is it? There are memories that are communicated between people in this film. Does this reflect the relationship you have with her? Or maybe with other people? A shared memory?

APICHATPONG: Yes, yes. Also, tidbits from locations, the psychic girl. All these things. If you remember the psychic girls talks about how she remembers that she was a boy falling? It’s the same story as in Syndromes and a Century, at the corner with the dentist—it’s the same boy. Because it’s a story that I heard in this town, I cannot get it out of my system. It’s this repetition of memory.

QUESTION: Can you talk about coming up with this psychic girl, this medium figure to represent that shared memory?

APICHATPONG: During the research of Uncle Boonmee we found a girl who could remember her past life as a boy. So I tried to put this here, and also they eat the mooncakes—all these things are just from diaries.

QUESTION: Can you talk about the music you use at the end of the film?

APICHATPONG: I cannot help myself putting music at the end [laughs]. It’s from a Korean band. About four or five years ago someone sent it to me and I love it. In the film, it’s about time in different representations and layers, real time, dream time, all these things. I think music for me is another time, when you use music almost like a music video you put the audience in a...it’s almost like closure. The title of the song is called “Love Is a Song,” so it’s really fitting.

QUESTION: In Tropical Malady you have this wonderful shot where a group of soldiers pass the jungle and you just fix the camera; we see nothing on the screen but the jungle. Suddenly, the music comes up and you start to advance the camera. In this, your new film, at the very end we see a group of people of different ages dancing with the river aside and we hear the music, and suddenly you change the position and angle of the camera. How do you see the relation between image and music?

APICHATPONG: In terms of the treatment of time and the relation between the filmmaker and the image, when I used music in Tropical Malady it’s exactly the same, but in reverse. That’s from the beginning. In Tropical Malady, my idea is to present you almost documentary-like time in the beginning, and then the music starts and the camera moves and you suddenly feel the presence of the filmmaker there. Here, it’s the same, but I choose to put it at the end, like the final brushstroke, my signature, or something: “okay, this is me.” I was not with you until the end with the voiceover and you have this dolly and then you have this very, very heavy hand.

QUESTION: At the presentation of the film yesterday, you mentioned the political situation in your country. How is it for you for you as an artist to create in that kind of system?

APICHATPONG: I question myself a lot about this, because in Thailand there is more and more, especially in the past years: people put in jail and going to what was called “attitude adjustment,” where go and have to sign that you won’t become active politically otherwise you will be persecuted and your assets and finances frozen. So people sign, and several of my friends did that because they are very active socially and also on Facebook, so it operates a very classic fear. Of course I feel that. I question myself: Am I an artist when I cannot say honestly? In this film, also, there are many things I have to revert to something that becomes symbolic, which I cannot say. So this kind of thing is frustrating and suffocating.

QUESTION: You talk about using dreams in making this film. Can you elaborate?

APICHATPONG: Yes, it’s from the art project that I started before Uncle Boonmee in the village where villagers sleep. It's something I’m really into. An act of sleeping as a way to escape. That when you cannot deal with reality you have to find another reality. So for me this film is like that. To go somewhere.

QUESTION: So it’s like going to the movies?

APICHATPONG: Exactly! It’s like a movie and a movie is also part of the escape, the hypnotism machine, so the movie is so obvious, it has the spinning fans, and all these lights that almost hypnotize not only Jenjira, but the audience as well.

QUESTION: You’re traveling the world with your movies and in a way representing Thailand. Do you think the Thai government gives you more freedom to express yourself because of your well-knownness?

APICHATPONG: No. I don’t think so, because the fame culture is different there, is not really regarded as, let’s say, important.

QUESTION: But you feel free to make the movies you want to make? Or do you have to tone down yourself, like a form of self-censorship? More symbols, and so on?

APICHATPONG: Yes, yes, but in the end I’m happy, and watching the film yesterday I feel very overwhelmed, and I think this is the film I wanted to make.

QUESTION: We can see you use many experimental ways to create the things we’ve never seen on the screen. For example, in the film in this old school you put tubes of light and we can see the variations of light play on the set. How do you determine when to deploy experimental methods when dealing with topics such as you Buddhism or dreams or ancient Thailand?

APICHATPONG: I’m trying to express how I feel when I dream, or when I meditate. But not in a religious way, more like a scientific way. I don’t know. On the contrary, I think this film has become much less experimental in form in terms of cinematic form. I just feel I’m getting older, and I want to make something reflects this town, that reflects this rhythm and memory. Less on the “experimentation.” In the end, I think this film for me works on a more emotional level than intellectual level. Yes.

QUESTION: You just mentioned being more scientific. Can you say something about your relationship to the mythology behind this building, the idea of a spirit world. And can you particularly explain the people on the side of the lake who move around from the benches?

APICHATPONG: [laughs] That may be one of the things I may not be able to, but… let’s go to that scene first. This was a re-shoot I added on later because I felt like we talk about illusion and we talk about cinema and the movement of people and emotion, and how about in this time, when Jenjira is in a different state of the world, how about we kind of play with that, with the movement, this stage, this illusion. At the same time, it also feels like puppets. It fit into the theme of hypnotism that I talked about, being on a string.

I cannot help growing up in this culture; it’s full of myths. The northeast especially is full of animist beliefs from the Khmer empire, and the people for me try to see beyond reality. Last week, there was this road where the concrete changed shape and immediately people in the village go and pray to the concrete, that some magical thing or the gods made it. This is so common that it’s not really shocking, it’s on the front page and people read it and look for lottery numbers. I don’t believe in these things at all, but I just feel it’s a reflection of this and also it influences how we live our political situation. The thing of karma we believe in is, I think, linked a lot with how people don’t struggle with freedom, “oh okay, it’s my karma, I must be submissive.”

QUESTION: One of the things I found very moving in the film was how this middle-aged character was being guided through the world by a younger man and a younger woman. With you talking about getting older, are you looking towards the young for guidance?

APICHATPONG: Yes, I’m being dictated by my boyfriend—he’s 30 [laughs]. I always ask him what he thinks, so we started collaborating on the artwork as well. Yes, young minds!

QUESTION: How does that change what you do, the idea of a young mind?

APICHATPONG: For me, from the beginning really, from Blissfully Yours or from my first film, it’s always about absorption, about asking people what to do, asking even the people who serve the water. Really it’s about collaboration. I really like the attitude of Andy Warhol, because he asks “what should I paint today?” “You paint money, you love money, you paint that.” This kind of thing, to become like a sponge.

QUESTION: Since you portray and research on dreams, do you think people dream differently?

APICHATPONG: I think actually not so much differently because mostly I think when people having quite a bad dream, it’s some kind of body mechanism to prepare us for the worst. But I found that dreaming is not like a “dream” in Hollywood, because in Hollywood you have something like, let’s say, a Salvador Dalí painting where everything is a super special effect. I think in my dream and many other people’s dreams, it’s so normal. So normal and narrative. But there’s something not right, and changes the story very quickly—I try to imitate that mood.

QUESTION: Do you see yourself making films in another country far away from Thailand?

APICHATPONG: Yes, in fact this film is the last film in Thailand. I feel the situation has become harder and harder to become true to oneself and that’s why I chose to work in my hometown.

QUESTION: Do you think you will miss something by shooting somewhere else?

APICHATPONG: For sure, for sure.

QUESTION: Are you ready for that?

APICHATPONG: [laughs] No no! It takes time. This film, five years. Next film, it will take adjustment.

QUESTION: And which country will you choose?

APICHATPONG: I love South America—I feel the history.

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