Jason on the the latest from beloved Thai director Apichatpong "Joe" Weerasethakul.
From what I gather, Weerasethakul is a filmmaker easiest approached with a road-map - an iconography of expectations, of mood and mise-en-scene, to guide you gently into the good night of his magical thinking. That is to say it's best to know what you're getting into. You're best served with a reference point, a friendly little ghost to hold your hand and lead you through the invisible world he's maneuvering his camera through.
It's a world that's not just off frame, to the left or right as you might expect. It's more as if it's sitting in the seats both left and right of you in the theater, occasionally grabbing at your popcorn, maybe whispering a lightly dirty joke in your ear before resting its head on your shoulder. It's comforting... but also a little invasive. He wants all of you.
I went in alone. Cemetery of Splendour, Weerasethakul's newest film, was my first. Hey, everybody had a first at one point, right? That's what makes it first. And just like losing one's virginity I found myself bewildered, a little bit sweaty, and ultimately ashamed at myself for putting it off for so long. That's what I was afraid of? Yeah it was a little bit weird but it went down fine, and I look forward to another spin.
Splendour tells the story of a somnambulist pack of soldiers, mysteriously struck sleepy-time by their surroundings, housed in a former school and taken care of by both some friendly local women (never unfriendly enough to not give a giggling poke at their engorged dream members) as well as a series of glowing candy-cane-shaped lamps, arcing gracefully over their beds while offering the jungle (and the film) a singular neon surrealism. It's rumored that the soldiers were digging up the earth for fiber-optics cables when they were struck ill and these lamps are like living heads of those wires, War of the Worlds-style, risen up to keep a slow colorful creepy watch over their slumber.
The film slowly (I'll have to bust out my thesaurus to find variations on "slowly" and "dreamily" for this review) closes in, in its medium-to-long-shot manner, on one sleeping soldier, and one nurse-type - Itt and Jen, who manage to form a sweet and easy rapport in between the comatose moments. He usually wakes up to her massaging some part of him, which is really the quickest way to a man's heart, no matter what the foodies say.
I don't want to trace out the road-map for you any further. I think if you've already wandered in Weerasethakul-Land you basically know your way around, and you know the journey - one taken half-drifting along just an inch or two above the ground as if you, like Jen, have one leg shorter than the other - itself is the destination. What a lovely journey though - a series of small escalating emotional catharses that moves through like clouds, like a slight breeze through the fanned trees, giving prayer to the benevolent specters milling about in the underbrush.
Cemetery of Splendour is screening at the New York Film Festival on Wednesday, September 30 and Thursday, October 1. If you're interested in Weerasethakul, check out Nathaniel's reviews of his Palme d'or winner Uncle Boonmee.