In Apichatpong Weerasethakul's new film, the ghosts are awake and the people are asleep. A war is being fought, but that war is invisible. Above the ground, soldiers are sleeping. Underneath, an ancient graveyard hums. At the centre of it all is a middle-aged lady, her leg damaged, her dreams interrupted, her memory luminous. She stares into the past, or maybe the future, and what she glimpses, in that limbo between sleep and life, is a cemetery of splendour.
Cemetery Of Splendour, which will have its premiere on May 18 at 68th Cannes Film Festival, is the first feature film by the Thai filmmaker after his historic triumph in 2010 when he defied the odds and won the Palme d'Or for Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives. The new film, the only Thai film invited by the world's most prestigious cinema event, will be shown in the Un Certain Regard section, a sidebar to the festival's main competition. This means that it is not in the race for the top prize — the Palme d'Or is regarded as the most coveted trophy in world cinema — though the Un Certain Regard has its own, smaller award that the Thai filmmaker won back in 2002 with his sylvan romance Blissfully Yours.
The new film is also a love story, the kind that is at once intimate and oblique, but it's also a political fable that, maybe, requires a firm grasp of the contemporary Thai context in order to read into its wry symbolism and allusions.
Set largely in a rural school that has been turned into a hospital, the film stars the director's long-time actress Jenjira Pongpas as a woman who tends to a soldier who has fallen ill with sleeping sickness. In a dream alchemy that suggests how cinema is a form of possession and telepathy, the film fuses reverie and hypnotism, life and fiction, and an on-screen narrative with off-screen references, with Jenjira as the wellspring of stories on the one hand, and the undercurrents of political unease on the other.
"I think people are not only living in reality," says Apichatpong. "We also live in the world of spirits. There are many layers of realities, the same as there are many layers of power [that control us]. We cannot shake ourselves off the power of the past. In the film, the soldiers are sleeping, but there is something else that is active."
Jenjira, too, is alternately awake and sleeping, and the golden slumbers are often the moment during which she recalls the past and mourns the present. Cemetery Of Splendour, Apichatpong says, uses a lot of material from Jenjira's real life, from her personal relationship, her childhood memory, to her physical damage — her bad leg, which over the course of many Apichatpong's films has become the saddest leg in world cinema. In the film, Jenjira's crippled leg at one point becomes an extraordinary phenomenon that gives the narrative one of its most touching scenes.
Apichatpong is known to have used anecdotes, names and stories from his life and from the people he works with in his films; the gentle swirl of personal details and recurring motifs — soldiers, hospitals, dreams, outdoor exercising, Jenjira's face — gives all his films a reflective and rapt quality that engrosses his fans and frustrates others. In Cemetery of Splendour, Apichatpong says that his collaboration with Jenjira is especially close, to the point that he "possesses her and sees through her eyes". Jenjira is the muse and the mother figure, and the filmmaker's fascination with her story brings about a partnership that goes beyond mere professionalism.
But it is not just through her eyes that the film is seeing Thailand. Cemetery Of Splendour, for all its gentleness, has a quiver of tension that comes from the director's observations on history, politics and nation-building. Soldiers have appeared in many of Apichatpong's work, from Tropical Malady (2004), Syndromes And A Century (2007), A Letter To Uncle Boonmee (2009), and other short films and video art, and they're often portrayed as an object of charisma and attraction. In the latest film, their presence acquires a deeper, complex dimension in our post-coup society.
"It becomes a mixture of fear, attraction, repulsion. It's also a depiction of power," the director says. "There are many layers superimposed on one another."
Cannes Film Festival runs from May 13-24 this year. We will have more reports from the festival in Life as well as on the Bangkok Post website starting next Wednesday.