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November 12, 2015

Denver Film Festival: Cemetery of Splendor


Rak ti Khon Kaen
Apichatpong Weerasethakul - 2015
Strand Releasing

I admit it. I've seen all of Apichatpong Weerasethakul's films, and I found Cemetery of Splendor to be a challenge. And my thoughts on this film may seem a bit disconnected. There is something of a narrative, of soldiers struck by a sleeping sickness, housed in a hospital in the northeast section of Thailand, Isan. The hospital building was formerly a schoolhouse, which is revealed to have been built on the cemetery grounds of former rulers. There is also the middle aged woman with one leg shorter than the other, who develops a friendship with one of the soldiers who does periodically awaken, and the woman who acts as a medium, sharing soldiers' dreams with family members.

A brief moment that struck me is a scene at a movie theater. On the screen is a trailer for an old Thai horror film, The Iron Coffin Killer, which I found out never was released in Thailand. Of course Apichatpong knows as thing or two about Thai films unseen in Thailand. At the end of the trailer, everyone in the audience stands up in unison. This is normal in a Thai movie theater, when the Thai national anthem is played, usually before the film begins. The last time I saw a movie in Thailand, I stood up, even though I'm not Thai, because to not do so is considered a criminal offense against the King of Thailand, and even though I astoundingly was the only paying customer in the theater. However . . . in Cemetery of Splendor, when the audience stands up, the screen is blank. And I'm not sure what Apichatpong is trying to say here, although it is probably not so much commentary on Thai royalty as much as a jab at a peculiar aspect of filmgoing in Thailand.

I have to understand Cemetery of Splendor as an allegory of contemporary Thailand. Apichatpong is interested in Thai identify, especially as it is currently expressed, without stating anything directly. The past, when the country was known as Siam, is revered. It may also be the devotion to that past that is hindering the present. The film begins with a large bulldozer digging a hole. It is later indicated that the digging is for a secret government project. The film ends with the hole refilled, and children running around over the dirt. Official Thailand can behave in ways that can cause native Thais to scratch their heads.

Apichatpong has indicated that this may be his last film shot in Thailand due to political considerations. As one who has followed Thai cinema, and read about the seemingly arbitrary rulings that have affected Apichatpong and other filmmakers, this comes as no surprise.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at November 12, 2015 09:11 AM