Thai film icon Apichatpong Weerasethakul is increasingly unable to work in Thailand. His most recent film, "Cemetery of Splendour," about catatonic soldiers enlisted from beyond the grave, will not be shown in his home country any time soon, as the military dictatorship installed in a 2014 coup has made free dialogue impossible. He's considering filmmaking in exile, possibly in South America, and continuing his exploration of magical realism and the haunting legacy of neocolonial violence. "Cemetery of Splendour," like a lot of his films, is guided by rural folklore and a melancholic lament of political repression. Awash in mysticism, it stays grounded, pointedly, in what's right there in front of us.
His last film, "Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives," was a minor crossover sensation and also his most formally audacious. A lesson in Thai film history, Boonmee hopscotched through multiple acting styles and cinematic formats, used chintzy effects and supernatural lore from old TV shows and comic books, and gave a "La Jetée"-esque snapshot of a dystopic future and a bestial fable of royal past. As a radical mosaic on the dying veterans of anti-communist crackdowns, it formed a potent tract against erasure both cinematic and political. "Cemetery of Splendour," by contrast, maintains a paranormal through-line but establishes it primarily through communal dialogue.
Returning to his hometown of Khon Kaen in rural Isan, Weerasethakul tells a story of soldiers in the Thai army suffering from a strange sleeping disease that renders them temporarily catatonic (a running gag that injects some levity into the proceedings). An old schoolhouse is converted into a military hospital for them, with giant glow sticks in lieu of actual medical equipment, dubiously noted for having been used in Afghanistan. Jen (longtime collaborator Jenjira Pongpas), a housewife to an American soldier and a patriotic bedside volunteer, mingles with Keng (Jarinpattra Ruengram), a psychic and medium for visitors, and some nurses, while the military proper digs for unspecified resources outside, possibly at future expense of their own soldiers in the hospital.
Much like Thailand's history of endless coups, displacement is a continual process in which the displacer is themselves in danger of the same. Jen, visited by princesses from a local shrine, learns the cycle has precedent in the mother of all displacements, a burial ground under the school of ancient kings whose spirits siphon energy from the sleeping soldiers to continue their centuries-old battles. As a friendship develops between Jen and Itt (Banlop Lomnoi), one of the sleeping soldiers, Weerasethakul traces the lasting legacy of political turmoil on a present beyond the people's control, and in stark contrast to the propaganda they're served.
Itt, when awake, reveals his position is less than heroic—washing cars for generals when he'd rather be selling mooncakes in gas stations. During an outing to the cinema, a movie trailer half out the frame features all the occult pyrotechnics "Cemetery of Splendour" relegates to conversation. After the audience rises for the Thai national anthem, Weerasethakul, rather than show the movie, instead cuts to footage of trash-strewn streets and the homeless, asleep by stone murals for Thai military leaders and an advertisement for touched-up photos of weddings to white men from Europe. An overhead shot of descending mall escalators meshes with the neon-drenched soldiers beholden to the world below, and, in a sense, everyone is conscripted to an endless cycle of violence.
The kings and their battles are never shown. Instead, there's an inventive sequence in which Itt, asleep and communicating through Keng, takes Jen on a guided tour of a King's palace, while we see a garden of sculptures above. Among the sculptures is one of a makeshift shelter similar to one Jen stayed in during the bombing of Laos and another of a pair of lovers juxtaposed with a pair of embracing skeletons. Thailand's history of U.S.-backed wars on communism echoes throughout. Nearby, a game of musical chairs comically evokes the round robin between thrones. By the time it's over, the mysteries aren't resolved and new ones arise (what is that floating amoeba?), but like Jen, the audience is apt to end up more awake than ever, tuned in to ask questions of their surroundings before further displacement renders them obsolete.
Screens on Thursday, May 5 at 4:45 p.m. at the Baltimore Museum of Art and on Sunday, May 8 at 4:10 p.m. at the Walters Art Museum