Thai film “Cemetery of Splendor” blends surrealism and fear

"Cemetery of Splendor" will be shown this week at Northwest Film Forum. (Photo courtesy Strand Releasing.)
“Cemetery of Splendor” will be shown this week at Northwest Film Forum. (Photo courtesy Strand Releasing.)

Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s “Cemetery Of Splendor” eludes simplicity. Like Weerasethakul’s previous work, this movie braids surrealism, sadness, love, humor and fear, gently but firmly insisting on its own unlikely existence. It’s the work of that rare artist who transcends “think outside the box” to “what the hell is a box?”

And like some of his other films, viewers won’t be able to see it in the director’s native country.

Weerasethakul, who playfully tells Westerners to call him “Joe,” has not been on reasonable terms with his own government for some time. His 2009 film “Syndromes And A Century” ran afoul of the Thai Censorship Board, which opined that Buddhist monks should not appear onscreen drinking booze, kissing, and playing with a remote-controlled toy flying saucer. “Joe” felt his Buddhist monks could do as they pleased. The film still hasn’t been legally shown in Thailand.

More recently the country’s National Legislative Assembly, reconstituted after the military junta took power in 2014, asserted its right to censor any films shown in the country, or ban a film outright. Weerasethakul and other directors protested against this to no avail.

And now Weerasethakul doesn’t feel safe releasing his films in Thailand and fears the new Thai government. He told reporters that he has chosen not to release his films in Thailand because of the risk, telling a reporter for the Guardian, “I know if I speak, harm will come to me.”

“Cemetery Of Splendor” opens in darkness, as heavy machinery sounds build through theatre speakers. We soon see a Hitatchi excavator digging a deep trench.

Like many things in Weerasethakul’s cinema, these elements could be intended symbolically, the way Iranian directors often slip metaphorical references to their own repressive government, into seemingly simple narratives.

"Cemetery of Splendor" is the latest film by director Apichatpong Weerasethakul, and possibly the last he will make in Thailand. Photo courtesy of Strand Releasing.)
“Cemetery of Splendor” is the latest film by director Apichatpong Weerasethakul, and possibly the last he will make in Thailand. (Photo courtesy of Strand Releasing.)

But this narrative is anything but simple. The excavator sits outside a makeshift hospital, which appears to have once been a school. Children’s drawings and educational posters cover the walls. But the former classrooms hold beds, now — beds full of soldiers. Soldiers attached to the mysterious digging project have mysteriously fallen asleep and can’t be revived. They sleep comfortably. But that is all they do.

Into this strange situation come two women. Jen, an older woman, has one leg much shorter than the other, and can only walk slowly, dragging her bad leg. Despite her deformity, she’s cheerful and willing to volunteer. She watches over the sleeping military men. She talks to them. She waits patiently for them to wake up.

The other woman, Keng, says she can talk to the soldiers. Keng says while the soldiers’ bodies stay still, they take long spirit walks through the region’s past.

The huge glassless windows around the soldiers let in sunlight and let the viewer see the huge trees. If watching the people waiting for something to happen is not interesting, you can always watch nature proceeding implacably on its own time scale.

Weerasethakul excels at long takes, running through cycles of subtle emotions.

At one point, a man shits in the jungle on a hillside. We never see the figure’s face. I confess, I squinted my eyes through some of that long take, which quite clearly was not simulated. And I’m not sure how or if it integrates into the rest of everything.

Haiku master Buson once wrote that “His Holiness The Abbot/is shitting/In the withered fields.” Perhaps the scene means that everyone answers the call of nature. And everyone can feed a field.

Weerasethakul has told reporters he does not plan to stay in the country that rejects his work. Here’s hoping that some nation, tolerant to dreams, finds a place for him.

The Northwest Film Forum has scheduled nine screenings of the film Friday March 18 through Thursday March 24. The Northwest Film Forum also will host two screenings of  Weerasethakul’s “Mekong Hotel.”