As part of its Halloween weekend offerings, the Walker Art Center is screening something of a cinematic treat: Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s latest film, the Cemetery of Splendor. Like the director’s Palme D’Or winning 2010 work Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, Cemetery explores aspects of spirituality and brings them to life under the shadow of Thailand’s troubling political realities.
Cemetery’s story orbits around a school converted to a hospital, where a group of soldiers are suffering from a sleeping illness. In a big, breezy room, the soldiers sleep next to therapeutic machines that look like giant, color-changing candy canes. Often, we see the soldiers at night, the colors washing over them, and the visual effect is hypnotizing. It’s one of several images, such as children playing soccer in a field-turned-martian-landscape, that are impossible to forget. Indeed, one of Weerasethakul’s gifts is that he is a master of the mysterious visual metaphor, images that the filmmaker Werner Herzog might say are full of “ecstatic truth.”
The main characters in Weerasethakul’s latest are two women part of the small town hospital staff. One is a middle-aged lady who suffers from having one leg that’s too short, and the other is a medium, who can speak for the soldiers while they sleep. At first, the film seems like it’ll try to have the two get to the bottom of the mysterious illness, but that thread dissolves once the lady with the short leg is given a supernatural explanation by two beautiful goddess, who just walk up to her in plain clothes and join her for a snack. From here the film explores what could be called the spiritual heart of this small town, which also happens to be the place where the director grew up.
Talk of past lives, forgotten palaces, medicine and suffering converge in this movie to show a people to whom the spiritual is just a fact of life, like cell phone cell technology. Weerasethakul, who hardly ever uses a close-up shot, keeps us at a dispassionate distance, where we can always see the breeze moving through open windows and trees. Moreover, we can always hear the wind too, as the director pretty much only uses ambient noise. The aesthetic choices add to the film’s hypnotic power, and they also give the characters in it surprising tenderness. He’ll show a man squatting in the bushes, doing the business of his bowels, and it appears almost beautiful. Likewise, when humor occurs in the film, it explodes on screen, like a celebration of human weirdness. As such, sight gags involving the erections of sleeping soldiers are anything but dirty.
While Cemetery is certainly one of the most visually compelling and remarkable films of the year, viewers should know that it’s a slow, meditative burn. It’s a film to watch with coffee, not beer, because the constant talk of sleep may invite you to nod off. While that could be a pleasant experience in itself, it’s probably not what most movie-goers are looking for. Funnily enough, Cemetery is, on some level, like experiencing a waking dream, and what’s truly remarkable about it is that no special effects bring this dream to reality. On display instead is the perfect cinematic equivalent of magic realism, inspiring in us a sense of awe in the variety of human experiences and a profound acknowledgement of Weerasethakul’s talent. He is of the rare echelon of filmmakers who can truly make dreams come true.
Cemetery Of Splendor is playing this weekend at the Walker Art Center.