"If I think about the future of cinema as art, I shiver" (Y. Ozu, 1959)

Benjamin Mirguet

Published in 10

Between dream and nightmare

Boris Nelepo

Hobbling nurse Jen without delay singles out a sleeping soldier who looks just like Clark Kent, Superman's alter ego. His superpower is being able to smell the flowers he sees in his dreams - some skill for a military man. If it were up to him, Itt the soldier would rather sell mooncakes than wash the generals' cars. But, what is a Thai filmmaker to do when last year's coup, his country's twelfth in 80 years, leaves him petrified with fear and despondency? Apichatpong Weerasethakul doesn't want to show weapons or bloodshed or suffering on screen; nor does he know how. Though an articulate political statement, his Cemetery of Splendour also relates a tale of impossible love reminiscent of Jean-Claude Brisseau's The Girl from Nowhere, weaving a dream chronicle into a childhood memoir. 

Here director revisits his hometown of Khon Kaen, for which he longed in Chicago while working on his short 011664322509 and where the autobiographical Syndromes and a Century was partially set. The visionary auteur often uses the expression “the burden of memory”. On his journey northeast, he circles around the locations of Uncle Boonmee..., whose characters referred to some "brutal hunt for communists." In Blissfully Yours, a character points to the jungle and says, "This is where the ghosts of Japanese soldiers dwell." The goddesses in Cemetery tell Jen outright that the earth beneath her feet is strewn with corpses.

The past holds people hostage. A portrait of General Sarit Thanarat, who was instrumental in the 1947 coup and staged the insurgences of 1957-58, now oversees the soldiers in the canteen. As it pans across town Apichatpong’s camera comes to a halt at a militarist low relief also dedicated to Thanarat. Unlike Joe's earlier vistas of mellow moods, Cemetery of Splendour appears shot through with currents of anxiety, disquiet, and paranoia. In one of the film's recognizable leitmotifs, the characters treat each other with continual mistrust, suspecting some clandestine identity in everyone: is he a terrorist, police spy, FBI agent? Jen suddenly remembers that her ex-husband was in the army, too - and a veritable monster he was. His name turns out to be Colonel Narong. A biographical detail from the actress's life, but at the same time Colonel Narong, a member of the “Three Tyrants” that seized the power in the 1960s, did exist. “When you’re asleep your metabolism slows down. Someday you’ll see a better future,” Jen promises Itt.

A dissolve - an image from one scene transitioning slowly into the next - is perhaps the most apt word to describe Cemetery. A former school is transformed, temporarily, into a hospital. In the movie’s climax, Keng the medium channels the spirit of Itt who lies asleep and thus evidently suggests a metaphor for the acting profession, even though the audience for this performance consists of Jen alone. It’s worth noting that the part of Itt went to the same actor who had played soldier Keng in Tropical Malady, so the medium in the new movie quite literally becomes the old Keng. When in the medium’s body, Itt takes Jen for a walk through the woods showing her an imaginary reality that includes a king’s throne room, a music room, a room of mirrors, and pink marble. The dissolve technique is deployed to great effect in the giddy scene at a movie theater, where Apichatpong captures in an uninterrupted take five escalators moving in different directions; slowly, the images of soldiers dozing in a hospital seep through onto the screen. The ward we see now is equipped with bizarre, downright fantastic tubes constantly changing color. 

This color therapy is supposed to chase away nightmares. Jen professes her love for Itt as she only knows how: “When you’re asleep even the bright city lights look boring.” At some point Jen wants to wake up, and Itt instructs her to open her eyes as wide as she can. In the very last - and most disquieting - shot, she sits in front of a furrowed football field, children playing among holes, and tries her best to open her eyes. However, the hardest part is to draw the line between a dream and a nightmare.

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