Five years after winning the Palme d’Or at Cannes Film Festival, director Apichatpong Weerasethakul returns with the surreal Cemetery of Splendor (Rak ti Khon Kaen), transporting us across time and reality. Instead of displacing the viewer through special effects, quick camera movements, and cuts, Weerasethakul takes a simpler approach: confusing the real and the dream with a passive camera. The compositions in his film are more often than not distant, still, and slow. As viewers of a media abundant world this stillness is arresting—allowing us to fully perceive each shot and contemplate each interaction. Cemetery of Splendor is a meditation on the fluidity of history, memory, identity, and relationships.
Weerasethakul spoke with us about the making of the film, his use of subtlety and minimal use of flashy film techniques, Thai culture, and censorship. Cemetery of Splendor will screen at Walker cinema on October 30–November 1.
What inspired Cemetery of Splendor—Rak Ti Khon Kaen?
The film is a search for old spirits I knew as a child: the school, the hospital, the cinema. The film is a merging of these places. I haven’t lived in my home town for almost 20 years. The city has changed so much, but when I went back I only saw old memories on top of the new buildings. One of my favorite spots, the Khon Kaen lake, remains the same.
In Cemetery of Splendor, the past haunts the present: there are layers of history in a single place. What about this layering is significant for you?
That’s how we operate—with layers of history and memory. I feel, as a Thai, that my identity is still shifting from different information—historical research, propaganda machine, myths, and tales. At times it is confusing to search for “reality.”
Illness, death, and medical centers have emerged in more than one of your films. Is this a recurrent entry point into the surreal or dream world?
My parents were doctors, and we lived in one of the hospital housing units. Growing up I was always interested in sickness. Living in Thailand for the past decade has been like one continuous sickness.
The vast majority of camera shots in Cemetery of Splendor are long and still, allowing the viewer time to meditate on the composition. Can you talk a bit about your use of duration and stillness? Is this a narrative structure you use to confuse reality and surrealism, or is your aim to introduce the past into the present?
I try not to impose on the audience’s freedom to look and to listen. It feels almost rude to cut when the characters are in conversation, for example. The same can be said about the treatment of surrealism. I want this film to be a gentle assault on the senses, rather than load it with special effects.
The first camera movement we see is the pan over the escalator that fades out as the hospital ward fades in, why did you opt for this moment in particular to introduce movement?
I think this is the proper time to synchronize the audience with the character Jenjira (Jenjira Pongpas). It’s an excursion to town and to the mind. For me, it is when she merges with Itt (Banlop Lomnoi) and the audience.
Itt mentions to Jen his desire to quit the army then suddenly falls asleep. Is the sleeping soldier a metaphor?
In the past you’ve run into censorship issues with the Thai Censorship Board. What is the current landscape of Thai cinema and censorship? Do you see Cemetery of Splendor as provocative of censorship by the board?
It’s tricky because the censorship law is used arbitrarily. A silly comedy can be banned if some elements are not in tune with the authorities. The elements don’t even have to be in the film. For example, if you are independent, not pro-army, etc., these traits can play a role in how the board treats you.
Early on in the film we see signs of western culture: a soldier requests minced meat, bamboo shoot soup, and a Coke for dinner. Do you embrace the fluidity of culture, or are you more critical of the potential loss or diluting of eastern culture?
Minced meat and bamboo shoot are very local northeastern dishes. We tried to not have subtitles that would be too confusing for foreign audiences. Anyway, Thai culture is mainly about appropriating other cultures. I am happy with this fluidity.
What is on the horizon for you? Are you working on another film or project?
I am planning something about ancient healing, maybe in South America. But I want to approach it from a scientific angle. I hope that there will be more elements of science fiction than the previous films.
For more: In October 2012, Apichatapong Weerasethakul made Cactus River (Khong Lang Nam) for the Walker’s first online commission. He was also featured in the Walker Dialogue New Language From Thailand with Chuck Stephens in 2004.