“Sometimes you don’t have to understand everything to appreciate a certain beauty. This is open cinema.” – Apichatpong Weerasethakul
Film is a medium in its infancy, still finding its essence and purpose. Most contemporary films continue to be bound by conventions carried over from literature and theater; they unspool their narrative events one after another in rapid succession, like pages in a book. The viewer in these cases is required to follow along, figure things out, put it all together in a sensible order. In contrast, the films of Apichatpong (“Joe”) Weerasethakul are not stories so much as they are dreams. We absorb the mood and meaning of Apichatpong’s work through proximity, not through scrutiny; we are not meant to make sense of the unfolding events but to let them flow through us without judgment. It’s okay if our minds wander. According to Joe, it’s even okay if we fall asleep. This is open cinema.
Joe’s latest is Cemetery of Splendour, a film about a troop of soldiers who contract a mysterious sleeping sickness and are moved to a makeshift hospital in a forest that resonates with ancient magic. There, one of their caretakers is a middle-aged volunteer named Jen (Jenjira Pongpas Widner) who takes a particular liking to a good-looking soldier named Itt. Jen enlists a spiritual medium, Keng, to help her communicate with Itt while he sleeps. Jen learns from Keng that the school-turned-hospital was built on a graveyard for ancient kings, and that these kings have commandeered the souls of the slumbering soldiers to fight their wars in the spirit world.
In spite of his frequent assertion that there is no single right way to interpret his films, Joe is not shy about discussing Cemetery as a metaphor for contemporary politics in his native Thailand. In interviews, he highlights a connection between the sleeping soldiers, who are being controlled by an immaterial monarchy, and the exploitation of the Thai people by the current ruling powers. To those of us who are unacquainted with the political affairs of Thailand, Joe says that’s “no problem”—this unfamiliarity won’t hinder our experience of the film because it can be enjoyed on multiple levels. Similarly, we can enjoy the film’s offerings without being privy to the many references to Buddhist and Animist deities and practices. This capacity to deliver strange pleasures to viewers regardless of their cultural background is also present in Joe’s Palme d’Or winning Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010) which features a host of fantastical creatures that emerge from the lush forests of Thai folklore. A western viewer’s ignorance of this folklore can make the supernatural elements more alien and thrilling, underscoring Joe’s philosophy that every viewer’s experience is unique, and one viewer’s experience is not superior to another.
Unlike those in Uncle Boonmee, the magical entities and events in Cemetery are only hinted at, never depicted outright onscreen. This tendency to refrain from showing us the supernatural is particularly acute in a scene when Jen meets two young women dressed in contemporary clothes who profess to be the flesh-and-blood incarnate of the ancient goddesses who are depicted by statues at a nearby shrine. By declining to show us proof to support this claim, the film stops short of insisting on its validity. We might be skeptical, but soon we have to choose to suspend our disbelief so we can get on with enjoying the film on its own terms.
This act of overriding our incredulity brings to light a fundamental aspect of film spectatorship. Sometimes we must submit to a film’s illusions to engender a deeper connection with that film—whether this means overlooking our awareness that the actors are acting and the sets are sets, or entertaining the unique version of reality put forward by the film. This habit of welcoming illusion has been automatic in most of us since we became seasoned consumers of film and video at a young age, but it is nevertheless a learned behavior—we could even say a skill—that Cemetery of Splendour brings into consciousness by tilting our attention toward it.
If we use it wisely, this skill can serve us beyond the cinema. To have a complete experience of our vast and complex world, we sometimes need to ask ourselves to believe in things we can’t see or have not yet seen—microscopic organisms, extra terrestrial life, a cure for a new disease, or the interior worlds of others. A holistic understanding of our surroundings requires a degree of openness and faith not unlike the mental state required to connect with a film. Cemetery of Splendour can be seen as practice for this kind of perception, gently sharpening our ability to see the invisible by tilting our attention toward it.
Manager and Assistant Programmer of Film and Video
Apichatpong Weerasethakul has been creating moving image work in his native Thailand since the early 1990’s. His 2006 film Syndromes and a Century received critical acclaim and international exposure after its debut at the Venice Film Festival, and in 2010 he won the Palm d’Or for Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives. Working independently of the Thai commercial film industry, he devotes himself to promoting experimental and independent filmmaking though his company, Kick the Machine Films, which also produces all of his films. His installations have included the multi-screen project Primitive (2009), acquired for major museum collections (including Tate Modern and Fondation Louis Vuitton, Paris), and most recently the film installations Dilbar (2013) and Fireworks (Archive) (2014) presented in galleries in Oslo, London, Mexico City and Kyoto. Apichatpong’s work explores both the culture and the political suppression of the Thai people through themes of sleep, sickness and healing, memory, ghosts, classic cinema (particularly horror and science fiction) and the spirit world. He has recently announced plans to relocate (probably to South America or Mexico) in order to continue making films free from the government censorship that inhibits his work in Thailand.