The Cemetery of Splendor and Apichatpong Weerasethakul
Since no one in the West knows how to properly pronounce his name, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, answers to "Joe." The Thai director was born in 1970 in a provincial city in Thailand. He is ethnically Chinese. Both of his parents are medical doctors and were employed by the local hospital in Khon Khaen, the town where he was raised.
Weerasethakul was educated at the university in his home town and, then, at the Art Insitute in Chicago. He studied film and, beginning in 1993, directed lyrical and poetic short subjects. Weerashakul’s first feature-length film, Mysterious Object at Noon, an exercise in surrealism was completed in 1999. Mysterious Object at Noon is not fiction – rather, it is an example of a surrealist game, "Exquisite Corpse." In "Exquisite Corpse", participants in the game construct sentences or images in fragments that are, then, combined into a finished artifact. The name of the game comes from one of the first sentences constructed, grammatical element by element: "The exquisite corpse shall drink the new wine." The film is a kind of road movie: the director travels throughout Thailand encouraging people that he meets to add to the narrative that he is constructing.
Weerasethakul’s first narrative film is Blissfully Yours (2002). The movie involves a young man suffering from a mysterious rash over his upper body. He is involved with two women and has sex with them. Weerasthakul is homosexual and the film features male full frontal nudity controversial in Thailand.
Working with another director and performance artist, Weerasthakul created a spoof on popular Thailand martial arts films, The Adventure of Iron Pussy – this is a film of the genre popularized by John Waters, a campy appropriation of a trash-culture. Weerasethakul said that he enjoyed making the 2003 picture but that he didn’t particularly enjoy watching it.
In 2004, Weerasthakul directed Tropical Malady, an enigmatic two-part film that seems to equate homosexuality with vampirism. This was followed by 2005's Syndromes and a Century, a movie paying tribute to Weerasethakul’s parents and their relationship – this film is also divided into two parts that don’t really match one another. (This film was commissioned by the opera director, Peter Sellars, and the government of Austria as part of the New Crowned Hope celebration of Mozart’s operas composed in Vienna and Salzburg.) Weerasethakul’s Uncle Bonmee who can recall Past Lives (2010) was the director’s breakthrough movie with international audiences – the film was shown in art cinemas around the world and highly regarded. The movie involves an old man who can recall, so he says his past lives. The picture features some very primitive, if frightening special effects – there is a large shadow monster, for instance, with glowing ruby red eyes. Mekong Hotel (2012) is frankly experimental – the picture shows Pob ghosts eating offal in a deserted hotel overlooking the Mekong river. The background is bucolic, even, idyllic – green jungle with the Mekong river flowing through the landscape. There is much discussion of various kinds of Thai ghosts and vampires.
Cemetery of Splendor was made in 2015.
It is important to understand that Weerasthakul is an important "installation" artist. He has made many short films for installations that he has designed for various museums. This is the kind of art you encounter at the Walker Art Center – a darkened room, some artifacts, colored lights, a video monitor showing enigmatic images. Much of Weerasethakul’s art is designed for consumption in this kind of setting. In this respect, Weerasethakul’s films must be considered in light of the primarily non-narrative esthetic implicated in museum installations of this kind. (In Cemetery of Splendor, the impromptu hospital housing the somnambulant soldiers becomes a kind of installation art – the beds with their adjacent transfusion equipment and the C-Pap masked soldiers are bathed in light that modulates through the spectrum; this light also tints vertical stanchions between the beds, the clear plastic in those enigmatic forms also ascending and descending through the spectrum. In my view, the plastic rods suffused with colorful light are dream-allusions to the IV stanchions that Weerasethakul saw in the hospital where his parents worked.)
Weerasethakul’s films, therefore, sometimes present this conundrum – what is the finished work of art? Is it the movie? Or is it the installation setting in which his movies are often presented? Weerasethakul’s films are screened as self-sufficient, self-standing works of art – but, in fact, in many instances, his movies don’t stand alone; rather, they are part of larger, more complex exhibitions that may include other kinds of art. An example is the so-called Primitive project shown in 2011 at the New Museum in New York City. The centerpiece of Primitive is the film Uncle Bonmee who can recall Past Lives. However, the film is only one element of a larger constellation of artworks including collaborations with other Thai artists, a number of short videos, including The Phantoms of Nabua. Nabua is a town in the Isaan region of Thailand where the Communists clashed with local peasants, attacking villages and driving all military-age men into the jungles. A number of atrocities were committed in the area between 1965 and the mid-seventies. The installation consists of a number of screens on which video images are projected. Some of the films recreate a Thai legend of a widow who snatches away men who enter her enchanted forest. (Nabua is in the extreme northeast of Thailand, bordering on the Mekong River.) The Phantoms of Nabua depict local boys playing soccer with a flaming soccer ball. In other videos, we see local kids building a flying saucer as a kind of hang-out and refuge from the adults in the village. The installation’s theme is how people cope with historical trauma, an issue allied to The Cemetery of Splendor. Commissioned by Munich’s Haus der Kunst, the installation is related to research that Weerasethakul conducted in support of Uncle Bonmee.
The Cemetery of Splendor was written in city-Thai and, then, translated into the Isaan dialect spoken in Khon Kaen where the film was made. According to Weerasethakul, an audience in Bangkok would require subtitles and not be able to understand the words spoken by the performers in the film. The "making of" featurette accompanying the film shows Weerasethakul and his leading lady, with another writer, laboriously translating each line of the script into the Isaan version of the Thail language.
The movie was shot in the provincial capital of Khon Kaen, a large city 450 kilometers from Bangkok in the geographical center of Thailand. This is Weerasethakul’s home town, the place where he was raised, and attended college. The city is notable for a nine-story tall Stupa containing relics of Lord Buddha.
Buddhism in Thailand
Around 250 BC, the great Indian ruler, Ashoka, dispatched Buddhist missionaries to the east and west. The embassy to the Greeks failed. But the missionaries sent to Southeast Asia were successful and Buddhism spread from its place of origin, India, into Burma, China, and Ceylon. Where Thailand is now located, three different groups of tribal people lived – the Laos, Thais, and Khmer. These people were largely rural and worshiped local spirits. Although there was an overlay of Brahmanical Hinduism in this part of southeast Asia, the peasants believed that all events were controlled by the influence of myriad spirits concealed in nature. In each house, an ancestral spirit was venerated. Every grove, field, and river was thought to contain spirits call phii that had to be propitiated if the crops were to grow, livestock and women remain fertile, and disease be averted. Phii could be both beneficial or malign.
Buddhism in the Theravada form became the state religion in the area that is now Thailand late – around the 12th and 13th centuries. Elites ruling in urban centers proclaimed themselves to be Buddhist and established large monasteries. In the country, monastic Buddhism was superimposed over pre-existing animist or spiritist practices.
Every Thai male is expected to serve some time in a Buddhist monastery. Young men typically enter the monasteries during the rainy season (July to October) when agricultural work as impractical. Most Thai men spent about 3 months in the monastery, learning the Pali canon, and practicing chants and meditation. Buddhist monasteries in rural Thailand are supported by the local farming communities – monks who have taken life-long vows are supported by their families or the communities from which they hail. Since menstruation was thought to be ritually impure, women were not active in the Buddhist Sangha (community) until after menopause. Mothers are supposed to encourage their sons to become monks and a woman whose boy goes to the monastery is thought to accrue much karmic favor. Buddhist monasteries for Thai men are flexible about their membership – it is not rare for a householder to spend several months every couple years in the monastery renewing his vows as it were. As is the case throughout the world, the number of full-time monks in Thailand, once as many as one in ten men, has radically decreased.
Thai Buddhist monasteries are thought to be channels through which divine wisdom and grace flow into the world. The monks are called upon to perform ceremonies, chanting for rain, blessing crops, praying for the longevity of the sick and aged, and manufacturing magical talismans, including love amulets. Monks are taught to act mindfully, and practice loving kindness, concern, compassion, generosity, calm, and the pursuit of the good – they are pacifist and not allowed to shed the blood of any living being.
Classical Buddhist doctrine that conditioned reality and desire are the causes of suffering are "considerably softened in popular understanding" – as per Johnson and Robinson in The Buddhist Religion. Most Thai people expect that if they lead a relatively good life, they will be awarded with a favorable rebirth – no one really expects to be reborn as a hungry ghost or animal or, even, in a Buddhist hell, a temporary state of torment that is similar to Catholic purgatory. These unfortunate destinies are possible according to the law of Karma but not likely.
There is no inconsistency between Buddhism and the pagan gods of a place. Buddhist thought holds that the world is full of gods. There are many heavens above us, filled with gods that are not immortal but that live a minimum of 36 million years. Similarly, there is a hell underfoot where sinners undergo purgatorial purification in support of a favorable rebirth. Ontologically less than (or below) that hell is the consciousness of animals. Beneath animals are innumerable ghosts, many of them hungry with greed and lust. These ghosts are tormented by the lowest order of beings, demons. Thus, Weerasethakul can show us goddesses and, indeed, have them convey important plot points to the audience without, in any way, compromising the fundamentally Buddhist analysis of existence demonstrated by the film.
"History is a nightmare from which I am trying to wake up."
Stephen Daedulus in James Joyce’s Ulysses
At Cannes, the publicity package for Cemetery of Splendor advised that the film was based upon real events – apparently, 40 Thai soldiers were incapacitated by a strange sleeping sickness at a remote military base.
Some critics interpret Cemetery of Splendor politically: Justin Chang writing in Variety reported from Cannes that the imagery of the sleeping soldiers correlated to a government paralyzed by internal dissension. Tony Rayns reporting from the Toronto Film Festival opined that the movie was an "angry political attack on the current turmoil in Thailand" although framed as a "lamentation."
Thailand was ruled by a series of military dictators beginning in 1932 when the King of Siam relinquished his monarchical power. Between 1932 and 1997, Thailand’s history is a series of military coups, some of them during the Vietnam war era, influenced by the CIA. In 1997, a new Constitution was framed and free Democratic elections were conducted in 2001. Although the elections were marred by street-fighting, the results were internationally certified as legitimate. But political chaos between Thailand’s five principal parties continued to the point that the military sponsored a coup d’etat in 2006. More protest ensued including violent riots in 2010, the so-called Red Shirts protest. (These riots, arising out of plan to unseat the acting, democratically elected Prime Minister resulted in grenade attacks and open civil war in some parts of Bangkok – 87 people were killed, 1500 injured, and, at least, 51 Red Shirts "disappeared," when the army and police intervened. ) In 2013, the government of Thailand proposed amnesty for political opponents of the regime. This proposal was rescinded, however, shortly after it was made with respect to the Red Shirts. More street fighting ensued and the government succumbed to yet another military coup in 2014. At present, Thailand is ruled by the military junta. Yet another draft of the country’s constitution should be unveiled this year and the acting head of the government, a military general, is proposing the re-education camps be established for political opponents of the present regime.
La Vida es Sueno
At the end of Cemetery of Splendor, we see Jenjira sitting outside the school and watching some boys play soccer in a field that has been uprooted and gouged into heaps of dirt by the military. At least, one of the soccer goals is intact, but the rest of the field is a badlands of pits and piles of muddy earth. It seems impossible that anyone could play soccer in such a place.
But what exactly are we seeing? At least three possibilities exist. First, we may be seeing schoolchildren who are engaged in the quixotic attempt to use their soccer field for play even thought it has been destroyed by the military – this is a literal reading of the image. Second, Jenjira may be dreaming – we may be seeing her dream in which playing children are juxtaposed with the ravaged field. (The film’s final shot, showing Jenjira attempting to become awake – she does this by opening her eyes as wide as possible – in fact, suggests that, perhaps, we are seeing her dream.) A third possibility is that either the children are ghosts or, in the alternative, the cratered field is a ghost – in other words, we are seeing a cratered field infested with the phantoms of boys playing soccer or, in the alternative, boys playing soccer in a future (or past) ghost landscape.
The power and beauty of Cemetery of Splendor is that we don’t make an election as to what the image means. In fact, the image can hold all of these meanings, and probably more, without any incongruity. This is because there is no reality to the meditative mind. In Buddhism, a mind awakened to the truth understands that there is no world, no time, no self, neither me nor you – rather, the only reality is the jewel in the lotus, the divine spark of pure untarnished consciousness. Thus, the world is literally a dream, something that our desires imagine and project, an illusion (like a motion picture) that we take to be true but that is ultimately wholly insubstantial. The objective of consciousness is to become fully awakened, that is to achieve Buddha-mind – an understanding that desire is suffering and that desire
can be overcome. To call the children playing in the excavated field a dream is superfluous – first, we are watching a movie and, so, everything presented is unreal, a mere image. But the world itself, to the Buddhist thinker, is only a dream – what we take to be tangible reality is as insubstantial as a dream, a fiction: the boys playing soccer are not real because nothing is real.
Weerasethakul is homosexual. The AIDS epidemic figures heavily in several of his films. Weerasethakul is also the son of parents who were doctors and says that he was literally "raised in a hospital." The idea that suffering and desire are related seems intrinsic to several of Weerasethakul’s films. This point is made vividly in Cemetery of Splendor when the sleeping soldier displays an erection – desire is what keeps us from enlightenment; the self that desires is asleep, not fully conscious, a sleeper like the young men hospitalized in the old school. Images relating to transfusions, wound-care, catheterization, and the like appear in most of Weerasethakul’s films and signify, I think, the idea that an unenlightened life is one that is enmeshed in desire and suffering.
I think it is a mistake to over-estimate the influence of doctrinal Buddhism on Weerasethakul. There is no evidence that he is particularly religious and seems to have been raised in a secular environment. Most of his formative experiences, at least with respect to art, probably occurred not in Southeast Asia but in the Windy City of Chicago. In interviews, Weerasethakul says that he began to meditate while working on the "Primitive" project – that is, during the period of time that he was directing Uncle Bonmee. Meditation, and, later, reading scientific studies of sleep, have led Weerasethakul to explore the idea that reality is a dream and that we are unable to reliably ascertain whether we are awake or asleep and dreaming. (Weerasthakul notes that sleep involves REM cycles about ninety minutes long – that is, the typical length of a narrative feature film such as the horror movie glimpsed as a trailer in the Cemetery of Splendor). Furthermore, Weerasethakul’s imagery seems more heavily influenced by "folk Buddhism", that is the array of superstitions and associated imagery that Thai peasants hold. In the film, we see a representation of a "rural Hell" – that is, a sculpture garden made by Buddhist monks for didactic purposes. (I am unsure whether this sculpture garden, shown in a ruinous state, was built for the movie or previously existed.) These "rural Hells," often, depicted sinners undergoing torment in Hell – "rural Hells" feature lurid representations of torture and mutilation involving concrete figures, often, with outsized and swollen genitalia. The notion of Hell has no real authority in philosophical Buddhism, but in folk religion, the idea has significant traction – people who sin shall be tortured in a way consistent with the nature of their sins. The "Hell" depicted in Cemetery of Splendor apparently overlies the palace of the goddesses (or, perhaps, the palace where the warring Kings resided.) No trace exists of the palaces now lost for thousands of years. It is only by reason of Jeng’s ability to enter Itt’s mind and recall his earlier incarnations ("past lives") that she can lead Jenjira on a tour of the lost palace. What we are shown of the "Hell" occupying the site is rather mild: a simulated bomb shelter that relates to the fact that the area was a war zone during the Vietnam era – the Communists in Laos, on the other side of the Mekong River, fought supporters of United States in this area – and a grim memento mori, an image of two lovers who are transformed into a skeletal version of themselves in a second concrete sculpture. The "Hell" shows us that the landscape itself is dreaming – the autumnal-looking and mournful woods dream both of a violent and an idyllic past: the war and the long-gone palace.
The word "Buddha" means "one who is fully awakened." At the end of the film, Jenjira opens her eyes as wide as possible, accessing her Buddha-nature – that is, the spark of consciousness that allows her to be fully awakened to the reality of existence. Her mutilated leg reminds us of the Four Noble Truths:
– Life is suffering.
– Suffering is caused by desire.
– Cease desire and suffering ends.
– There is a path by which desire (and, therefore, suffering) can be overcome.
Buddhists imagine existence as controlled by karma. Karma simply means "action" – and the idea is also simple: our past actions determine our present. Similarly, actions committed in an earlier existence condition the terms of our present reincarnation. Finally, as the film shows, history as the actions of many men and women itself possesses a karmic force – a history of ancient war can control the present. Thailand’s ambiguous history during the Vietnam era has a karmic force that has afflicted the present-day nation with suffering, metaphorically depicted as the combat between the ghost-princes that has sapped the energy of the modern-day Thai soldiers.
In Buddhist thought, karma is generally depicted as flowing water. Many, many actions combine to create an almost irresistable force of karmic destiny – thus, the film’s depictions of a great river, presumably the Mekong, shows how the force of hundreds of thousands of human actions combines to create energy that flows in a current in a certain direction. Buddhist practice, however, may reverse the course of karmic influence – for this reason, a person who has attained the status of an Arhat, or enlightened one, is called a "stream-winner", that is, a person who can move against the current of karma. Bad actions, and an unsatisfactory history, can impel us toward a certain karmic destiny, but we have the power within us to reverse or, at least, impede the flow of this current. These ideas are epitomized in a cinematic pendant to Cemetery of Splendor, Weerasethakul’s Mekong Hotel, also released in 2015. This hour long film was made at the same time that Cemetery of Splendor was produced, apparently, shot in off-hours when the cast and crew were not devoted to making the feature film – it seems to show cast and crew at the hotel where they stayed while shooting scenes by the Mekong River. The final six minutes of Mekong Hotel simply shows the vast expanse of the Mekong River, at flood stage that we are told threatens Bangkok. The river looks like a sea or a great elongated lake and seems to have no current at all – but a tree has fallen into the flood and we can see the force of the mighty river pushing that tree downstream. In the far distance, some people on jet-skis are playing on the river, superficial and futile action that has no effect on the Mekong’s inexorable flow. Since Mekong Hotel features Jenjira Pongpas, the leading lady in Cemetery of Splendor, and, in fact, references certain scenes in the feature film, it is clear that the two films are intended to overlap.
One of Cemetery of Splendor’s more enigmatic sequences shows people in a river-side park. We see them occupy different locations, switching places with one another on the shore of a great river. Buddhism holds that there is no self – "where self is, truth is not." I interpret this sequence as epitomizing this concept – we will all assume various interchangeable positions in the world of suffering or Samsara. Sometimes, we are oppressed, sometimes we are the oppressor – we love and are loved, we reject or injure one another and are, in turn, rejected and injured ourselves. Because there is nothing permanent in our souls, we play many roles all of them interchangeable with one another – and, while we are deluding ourselves with the many roles that we play, the great river of karma flows inexorably by, and through, us.