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In ‘Bridge of Spies’ and ‘Cemetery of Splendor,’ National Identity Comes Under Scrutiny

In 'Bridge of Spies' and 'Cemetery of Splendor,' National Identity Comes Under Scrutiny

This article was produced as part of the NYFF Critics Academy. Read more on this year’s class here.

Both Steven Spielberg’s “Bridge of Spies,” which opens this week, and Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s “Cemetery of Splendor,” which played alongside it in the New York Film Festival, take as their central subjects national identity and international war. They ask what it means to come from or belong to a certain country, and (by implication) what it means to identify oneself in opposition to other countries. The films probe the citizen’s relationship with the body politic on a personal, spiritual and social level.

Spielberg, working from a script by British screenwriter Matt Charman that was partially re-tooled by Joel and Ethan Coen, addresses these topics head on in the true-life story of American insurance lawyer James Donovan (Tom Hanks) who is thrust onto the international stage when he is tapped to defend arrested Soviet spy Rudolph Abel (Mark Rylance), and later becomes the key player in a secret prisoner trade in East Germany. Every area of Donovan’s life — marital, paternal, professional — is tested when he decides to take on Abel’s case.

Working with veteran collaborator Janusz Kaminski as cinematographer and relative newcomer Adam Stockhausen as production designer, Spielberg choreographs sequences with Hitchcockian and Wellesian flourishes, from labyrinth chases to moody stalking to high-stakes conversations. Hanks’ smart and self-deprecating Donovan is thrown into ever-escalating adventures, zipping through space and across borders like a pinball, with political boobytraps and practical complications exploding with every collision. In a number of sequences, the inimitable Coens sensibility shines through: “Bridge of Spies” is at its most suspenseful when it puts all dialogue on hold for sustained and breathless sequences driven by the language of the camera, and it’s at its funniest when the loquacious characters spar with double entendres and misinterpret professional jargon. In the film’s most affecting chapter, Spielberg brings a poetic eye to the erection of the wall between East and West Berlin. The sequences in the battered, torn-apart neighborhoods are colored with sadness and existential dread, with Donovan as the appalled witness/audience surrogate: a Spielberg specialty.

But, ultimately, the film’s point-making is disappointingly unsubtle. Spielberg doesn’t distill his images and ideas to the rapturous emotional power of his best thematic (metaphorical) storytelling. His superior achievements in this vein range from “Minority Report” to “Munich” to “A.I.” and even “Tintin.” Nor is he working with material that effectively tempers his overflowing emotional intuition with realism and narrative economy.

Lessons are writ large — and repetitively — in the film’s dialogue. Donovan’s role as defense attorney was supposed to be perfunctory, but the he takes the Constitution too seriously (and personally) to lie down while Abel is sped to the electric chair. He defends his client as best he can, respects his humanity, and connects empathetically with his biography. In his statements to the jury, Donovan characterizes Abel as a good soldier, a citizen doing the best for his country, and worthy of respect — not vilification. Donovan, as embodied by Hanks, is a kind of cranky/sweet Dad-saint — he’s a “Great Man” who acts according to his morals in the face of social, professional, and familial pressure, a hero who sees through the false binary of absolute jingoism and absolute treachery. The film’s schematic, stacked-deck storytelling is honorable and even moving (not to mention politically relevant), but it finally has little staying power as art. Morally keyed to the level of a cartoon, with far too much mood-specific music, too many saccharine closeups, and too many neat and symbolic endings, the film does all of the work for its viewers, telling them how to feel, what to think, when to smile, and when to cry. It leaves no ambiguities to nag at them or develop troubling questions once they’ve left the theater.

Sharply contrasted to Spielberg’s extroverted rigamarole of international relations is director Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s languorous, sometimes nearly soporific style, put to satisfying use in “Cemetery of Splendor.” The film draws us into a slowed-down, reflective state; lengthy and casually welcoming compositions glow with soothing greens and blues. Like Yasujiro Ozu before him, Weerasethakul luxuriates in the simple routines of average days: washing, cooking and dressing are given their due, as are small talk and eating. But, like Ozu’s masterpieces (among them “Tokyo Story” and “Late Spring”), “Cemetery” is also interested in suggesting the customs, beliefs, and expectations that silently define and limit those average moments. The film’s basic premise is both mundane and unreal: legions of soldiers have returned from battle with an inexplicable sleeping sickness — they lay prone but calm, dreaming without end in hospital beds. Jen (Jenjira Pongpas), a middle-aged Thai woman, has volunteered to help at a remote countryside hospital to tend to the soldiers and talk to them. One of the sleeping men, Itt (Banlop Lomnoi) catches her attention. Her attitude towards him is motherly and affectionate, but there is an undeniable erotic charge when she touches him, a cautious intimacy while washing his arms and legs and tucking him into his sheets.

Weerasethekul fills in the details of the quiet hospital, its routines, and its personalities, but unanswered questions hang over everything: Where were the soldiers fighting? And against whom? The film never tells us, but instead layers unreality onto its realistic narrative framework, filling the hospital with reverberating ideas and suggestive subplots until the location is saturated with possibility. Ghosts come and go with a sunlit airiness; brightly colored glowing instruments are installed next to and above the soldiers’ beds to help steer away bad dreams; a clairvoyant young woman named Keng (Jarinpattra Rueangram) reads the men’s minds and relays their thoughts to their families. When Itt suddenly awakes one afternoon, Jen’s interest is reciprocated and their bond is immediate. She dotes on him and tells him about her life. He wonders about his far-away family, falls suddenly into long naps, and complains about the army — he was an assistant to a vain general; a secretary and a servant.

“Cemetery” continually, if elliptically, circles back to questions of nationality and patriotism. When Jen tells her American husband, “I love my country very much,” it’s not clear exactly why; she is not a paradigm of political engagement. In an casual fantasy moment, two beautiful ancient princesses visit Jen during a lunch break, split vegetables from a local market, and laugh. The moment is beguiling, but it avoids seemingly natural topics of monarchy, secession, and political change. Jen’s advice to Itt is to sleep through the present because the future will be better.

And, to be sure, Jen’s life is perennially difficult. At the start of the film, she appears almost symbolically wounded: she has a short leg that forces her to walk with a cautious hobble on a high platform shoe. She soldiers through with a brusque and gossipy manner, but this armor hides an intense longing for intimacy, a pent up erotic desire.

When Jen looks to her past, there is a surfeit of sorrow: “I’ve always been confused about love… My first husband was a monster.” She maintains a practical don’t-look-back determination to find happiness. She met her second husband on the internet (“He’s a little fatter in person,” she says, chuckling) but there is an accidental continuity to her life: “He’s a military man, like my first husband.” In her own way, Jen is a casualty of war — suffering more terribly than the sleepy Itt. Sitting at a Buddhist temple on a nearby lake, she listens to a song about unrequited love. “This is my favorite song.” She remains an eternal romantic.

In a leisurely extended sequence near the end of the film, Weerasethakul uses immediate, almost mundane symbols to contain his concerns with the national, the personal, and the spiritual.  Keng enters a hypnotic state and takes on the personality — or embodies the soul of? — the sleeping Itt. She/he takes Jen on doubled tour of the the hospital grounds, tracing the immediate present — trees, an industrial construction yard, historical plaques — and an imaginatively inhabited past — a King’s castle (“It’s so splendid! It’s magnificent!”). This titular “cemetery” puts the present in the context of Thailand’s feudal past. Along with their cultural reverence for history and elders, Jen and Keng/Itt display respectful awe when it comes to money and pre-democratic hierarchy. At the same time, the Buddhist slogans adorning plaques around the site offer a spiritual/political critique of social hypocrisy, decrying economic inequity, greed and poverty. One of them reads: “At the heart of the Kingdom, other than rice fields, there is nothing.”

In the film’s emotional climax; Jen rolls up her slacks and reveals a gnarled, deformed leg. Keng/Itt rubs a home remedy into it. The gesture is elusive. Jen cries at a release of pent-up frustrations — both emotional and sexual — as Keng/Itt leans forward to kiss her wound.

I won’t pretend to have put all of the pieces of “Cemetery” together, to have demystified its symbols, or decoded its critiques of Thailand’s government, of Western influence in Southeast Asia, or of war in general. A few years ago, Weerasethakul told the Jacob Burns Film Center that he feels no connection to Thailand’s state-sanctified national cinema: “I don’t know what Thai film is.” The government’s strict censorship has “forced young people to say things differently,” which suits him fine, because, as he says, “for me, reality is like a dream [and] I try to heighten that in my films.” The elusiveness is fine with me too; thus unresolved, I haven’t been able to explain the film away. I’ve been dreaming about the country hospital for two weeks.

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