Most films are domestic animals: cats or dogs. Some particularly beautiful ones might be horses or dolphins. But amongst the Fidos, the Fluffys and the Flippers, Apichatpong Weerasethakul‘s “Cemetery of Splendour” is a Northern White Rhino, the most endangered species in the world. This is not just because Weerasethakul is utterly unique among filmmakers, the kind of director who makes films so singular it’s impossible to think of how you would even go about mimicking his style (or indeed “describing” his “plots”; pity your humble reviewer). It is also because the mood ‘Cemetery’ evokes, a 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 perhaps 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.
If you haven’t seen a Weerasethakul film before, don’t worry —the only thing that prior exposure could possibly prepare you for is the confluence of the magical and the mundane that is the director’s stock in trade. A kind of social realist magic realism, his work makes a convincing case for the co-existence of the fantastic, the mythic and the historic with the banal details of everyday life: diggers and plastic bags and knitted booties for babies. Beyond that, you’d be stretching for comparison points within the director’s own back catalogue — ‘Cemetery’ is even quieter and more subtly strange than “Uncle Boonme Who Can Recall Past Lives” — and outside of that, there’s simply nothing like it. Absent the usual trick of triangulating myself by reference to the landmarks of other films, I cannot really communicate its value by anything but analogy: you just have to let the current take you where it will.
Loosely speaking, the film circles lazily around the central motif of a sleeping sickness affecting a group of soldiers in Isan, in the North-Eastern region of Thailand. On her frequent visits to the hospital in which the soldiers sleep under unearthly pulsating lights cycling through the spectrum imperceptibly, Jen (Weerasethakul regular Jenjira Pongpas Widner), a middle-aged volunteer with a disability requiring her to wear a built-up shoe, becomes attached to one of the men in particular (Banlop Lomnoi), and declares him to be her son to her mildly surprised American husband. When he wakes up suddenly (the men have been stirring a little, most amusingly in a scene where three fascinated women observe the tenting of a blanket as one of them gets an erection), he seems to accept her motherhood, tells her his name is Itt and explains to her the life he was living while he slept.
This is a world in which the present lies on top of the past, the impossible is entwined with the thoroughly rational, and the boundaries between these states are porous. So the princess statues to whom Jen pays devotion are made flesh as young, ordinary women who come to share a bag of fruit with her and tell her that Itt and the other sleeping soldiers are required in the past to fight the wars of the kings that lived and died on that spot many centuries ago. Later Itt, who after a spell of consciousness has fallen abruptly back asleep again, is allowed to take possession of the young telepath Keng (Jarinpattra Rueangram) and walks around with Jen describing the world he sees while sleeping and how it corresponds to the world she sees. Their synchronicity is finally compounded in a grotesque but utterly mesmerizing scene as Keng, inhabited by Itt, slurps a medicinal mixture from Jen’s grotesquely misshapen leg, as though suckling.
But there’s so much else — a glorious cinema scene, an oddly beautiful yet wholly graphic shot of a man defecating in the woods, and an aside that sees a group of strangers play an unspoken game of musical chairs with some public benches. And just when you start to think the film will remain in this quiet, somnolent register until the end of time, an unexpected burst of catchy music introduces a long take of a group of people dancing outdoors (another returning Weerasethakul image); I think they’re jazzercizing.
There is political allegory here for those who wish to find it: the sleeping sickness seems to affect only soldiers, who are also then soldiers in the far past in their sleep, serving masters they perhaps understand as little as the ones they obey today. But it is so lived-in and authentic in its real-world detail, and so enigmatic and mysterious in its diversions and sidelong glances, that it’s difficult not to see it as overridingly personal, not just to the director but to the viewer. It’s a true act of the most optimistic communication and communion.
I cannot tell you what this film is about — I frankly disbelieve anyone who claims they can — but I can describe what it made me think of. At certain moments a tranquil shot of a bus stop, or a forest floor will, like the lights that keep watch over the sleeping soldiers, shift gracefully in color grade from cool blue to hot red or from green through to purple. It reminded me of that childhood revelation that I think we all have, when we first realize that the colors we see might not be the same colors anyone else does. Like Keng the medium, I felt mildly possessed, as though Weerasethakul was making my eyes look out exactly through his own, which is a peculiarly intimate way to spend two hours of your life with a (very strange) stranger.
So perhaps it’s an attempt to describe and to achieve synchronicity, a desire to sleep someone else’s sleep, dream their dream, live their history, see their vision (right down to the microbe-y shapes that float across your eye when you stare into the sun). Or perhaps it’s none of those things, or only some. I can’t pretend to have any definitive ideas on its meaning, only its effect: I was spellbound. Its sleep motif will undoubtedly strike many as apt, because this is a slow, strange film, and if you have an immunity to its trancelike effects (it invades a little like a benign virus), you may well drift away. But if you are susceptible and trusting enough to let the film gently occupy you, you will have something glorious and quiet to keep for yourself. Just please, for the love of all things holy, of which this film may very well be one, see it in a cinema. [A]
This is a reprint of our review from the 2015 Cannes Film Festival.