"A farewell letter to Thailand." That's how Apichatpong Weerasethakul describes his spellbinding feature film, Cemetery of Splendour, set in his hometown of Khon Kaen.
The drama tells the story of soldiers convalescing from a mysterious sleeping sickness that leaves them suspended in a state somewhere between narcolepsy, hypnosis and a coma. With atmospheric languor, their dreams and brief waking moments ebb and flow into those of the workers who care for them in a rural makeshift hospital. But why is it goodbye?
In an interview during September's Toronto International Film Festival, Apichatpong – a soft-spoken and disarming director who often goes by "Joe" for the sake of his Western friends – shares that he doesn't know if he will continue to make films in his native country. "It's gotten to the point where it is increasingly difficult," says the director, best known for Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, which won the Palme d'Or at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival. "I'm not thinking of 'farewell' in a good or bad way. For me, it's more about the excitement of moving on. I cannot make more negative films if I want to go on living there – there are a lot of artists who have been imprisoned, as recently as two months ago. So I'd rather explore somewhere else where I can continue to pursue my interests."
Coming from the master of "slow cinema" – a wave of filmmaking committed to long, contemplative shots and minimalist dialogue – Cemetery of Splendour is a mesmerizing visual and narrative display that will hardly seem incendiary to North American eyes. But Thailand's rigid censorship laws, still beholden to the Film Act of 1930, are restrictive for a queer filmmaker unwilling to reproduce the nationalist tropes that appease government censorship boards. That's why Cemetery of Splendour's end producing credits read like an airport departures sign–Britain/France/Germany/Malaysia/Thailand – it takes a village, so to speak, to skirt archaic censorship restrictions.
The claustrophobic tradition of filmmaking and performance in Thailand is also why Apichatpong has always preferred to work with non-professional actors, such as Cemetery of Splendour's endearing lead character, Jenjira (Jenjira Pongpas Widner), who also appeared in the director's Blissfully Yours. According to Apichatpong, the majority of professional actors in his country perform in the vein of royal costume drama – a stilted and ostentatious form of Thai performance that is too affected for the gentle cadences of a film such as Cemetery of Splendour.
In the future, Apichatpong will make an exception to his casting method. He is willing to work with at least one professional, and that's his friend, the otherworldly performance artist and actress Tilda Swinton. A few years back there were excited rumours circling among cinephiles that Apichatpong and Swinton were collaborating on a feature film, but as yet nothing has come to fruition.
Swinton or not, Cemetery of Splendour is the sort of film that will stay with you for days or weeks, with certain scenes indelibly imprinting themselves on your mind, leaving you to wonder, was it a dream? This may be because Apichatpong taps into the unconscious, unruly and irrational aspects of the mind with a sense of naturalism. He refused to rely on special effects, for instance, to depict the monstrous sides of the subconscious. "I didn't want to use CGI," Apichatpong says, "it becomes too awkward for the movie. I realized the emotion of the movie is more important to focus on."
One of the film's particularly arresting moments of focus takes place in a movie theatre where we, along with the audience within the film, stare at black-and-white cartoonish figures projected onto the screen. The slapstick figures belong to a trailer that Apichatpong found on YouTube and serve as a homage to the films he saw as a child. The experience of watching an audience watch a film at the same time as you is eerie, but the sense of strangeness is softened by the ridiculousness of the embedded film. "This mixture of humour and sadness is key in terms of the space of the cinema house and what it means to watch movies," Apitchatpong says.
For the most part, Cemetery of Splendour is lulling, and the conversations of one scene spill over into the next, reproducing the dissolving boundaries of a dream state. It isn't always clear where one reverie begins and the other ends, and the film's lack of sharp edges is soothing. One of Apichatpong's great skills is to synthesize images that wouldn't normally be shown next to one another. In one instance, we are given a calm shot of a sun-dappled hospital floor that seems to have relaxed the sleeping soldier Itt (Banlop Lomnoi), too: His urine bag slowly fills with a warm yellow that corresponds with the day's waning light. The time of day synchs with the cycles of the sleeping body in this surprisingly tender scene.
Although Cemetery of Splendour is ghostly, dreamy and vibrates at a different frequency than one might be accustomed to, there is an abiding scientific curiosity underpinning even the most whimsical moments of the film. When I ask Joe if his spiritual beliefs inflect his filmmaking, he says no – it's his scientific ones that do.
"I've been meditating more, and I think it is a scientific basis for our exploration of how the mind works. It can be spiritual, but it's not about different gods or beliefs. That's why I do research on brain science."
Even though his film is rife with spectres and inflected by intuition, Apichatpong is skeptical of a purely spiritual approach to the world. "If you live in Thailand, maybe 90 per cent of people believe in ghosts. For me, it's gotten to a point where it's not spiritually productive," he says. His reluctance is well-founded: "When you view the country going downhill politically and economically – the military junta is taking over the country and a lot of people believe in them – you need to feel powerful, as though you need more logic in life. More logic, less faith."
For a film as mystical and meditative as Cemetery of Splendour, it might seem odd that its director is calling for more, not less, logic. But faith isn't the only seat of wishful thinking. With this slow and deliberate look into the recesses of memory and curiosity about where our brains go when we sleep, Apichatpong's capacious exploration of the human mind is a much needed leap of reason for Thai cinema.
Cemetery of Splendour opens March 11 at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto.