Cemetery of Splendour ★★★★½


[The following is a brief excerpt from my contribution to an upcoming collection of essays addressing the Berlin School of filmmakers and their relationship to international cinema. My essay traces connections between Apichatpong Weerasethakul and Ulrich Köhler.]

Apichatpong has found yet another way to examine history’s ongoing impact upon the living, and in a fascinating confluence of events, the Thai filmmaker has lighted upon the very same metaphor with which Köhler animated his own film [Sleeping Sickness (2011)]. Cemetery of Splendor (2015) expands Apichatpong’s interest in the spiritual world, deployed as a kind of literal metaphor. In the film, a group of soldiers has been afflicted with sleeping sickness and they have been remanded to a village hospital ward. The hospital is a former schoolhouse, and the transformation is still incomplete – one of the film’s many emblems of the undead past. Jen (Jenjira Pongpas Widner), a villager, takes a particular interest in one of the inert solders.

Eventually Jen is visited by two ghost princesses who explain why there is a sleeping sickness epidemic. It relates to ongoing, ancient conflicts from Thai history. “The ghosts of the dead kings are drawing on the soldiers’ energy to fight their battles.” With a somewhat oblique nod to The Matrix, Apichatpong is once again drawing on the concept of the ethereal plane to make direct commentary on contemporary politics in Thailand. Today, soldiers and other ordinary Thai citizens are being forced to enact ancient, endless battles, and it often appears as if there is no end in sight.

In a nation beset by almost regular coups, it can be difficult for an artist to find the means by which to inject dissent into the broader conversation, not only because of censorship, but also because of the perpetually “moving target” of one’s critique. Whether intentional or not, Cemetery of Splendour shows that Köhler’s particular take on Apichatpong’s temporal framework – a kind of bureaucratic simultaneity, or politically “stacked” time – has coincided with the latest shift in Apichatpong’s own cinematic approach to time. Whether or not Köhler’s film was an influence on Apichatpong is immaterial. The final image of Cemetery speaks to the fundamental similarity in their approach to 21st century film. Jen is told that the ghosts of the past are visible all the time, provided you keep your eyes wide open.