I recently watched two art films, one set in Hollywood, the other in Thailand, that take on meaning-of-life matters in strikingly different styles and stories. Terrence Malick’s Knight of Cups and Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Cemetery of Splendor both take the form of pilgrimage by sleepwalkers and dreamers, drifting rather than driven toward unexpected or desired revelations: Knight tracks the progress of Christian Bale’s pilgrim (call him the sick soul of Southern California) whose privileged life sucks when it comes to meaning or purpose. In Cemetery, we wander through a numinous Thai landscape in the company of a serene soul (Jenjira Pongpas) whose world is slowly permeated and perhaps shattered by revelations.
Weerasethakul’s unforced, visually mesmerizing excursion into metaphysics makes Knight of Cups look all the more pretentious, an airless exercise in aesthetic solipsism. Malick overloads Bale’s dream-quest with Portentous Signifiers, from allusions to John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, that 17th-century best-seller about the journey of an Everyman in search of his soul, to the Tarot card that features a knight-errant who symbolizes new opportunities and change, unless he’s upside down; then all positive bets are off. Then there’s a solemn prologue, all about a prince who went off on a quest for a legendary pearl, only to fall into a deep sleep along the way. His father the king—Malick the director?–continues to send out signs and guides to provoke epiphany. Malick means to cast his hero’s journey in a strong mythic light, but all this philosophical footnoting fails to provide illumination in Knight of Cups.
Bale’s spiritual and emotional deracination is expressed by dipping in and out of scenes, relationships, soulless Hollywood parties in tastelessly opulent homes (think La Notte–lite in Southern Cal sunshine), repeated trips to the beach with a variety of only superficially differentiated women, encounters with perennially angry old dad (Brian Dennehy) and just-as-angry younger brother (Wes Bentley), walking tours among the homeless, professional pitches delivered in make-believe neighborhoods on studio backlots. L.A. architecture looms periodically, the buildings’ space-age patterns and textures framed for maximum inhuman beauty, sterile environs for aimless, perfectly beautiful automata.
Dialogue is sparse, just snatches of sound meant to hammer home the point that meaningful communication is impossible. Bale rarely speaks; mostly he’s a voyeur, a passive presence swimming around an existential aquarium, always on the edge of other people’s emotions and actions. (Apparently, the actor had no script; Malick directed him to improvise reactions once the camera started rolling.)
It’s La Dolce Vita in La-La-Land, sans anything but posed suffering. Bale’s existential plight isn’t persuasive, nor do we tune into what might pass for epiphany or enlightenment. Knight of Cups is almost all décor that signals spiritual bankruptcy, full-frame Vanity Fair adverts for haut-couture ennui.
In contrast, watching Cemetery of Splendor is almost literally like leaning out a window to breathe in fresh, authentically transforming air. A pilgrim without portfolio, the Everywoman who moves us through Weerasthekal’s down-to-earth dream-poem is only apparently going nowhere. A plumpish housewife, Jen volunteers as a caregiver at a hospital where soldiers afflicted with a strange sleeping sickness are warehoused. (To paraphrase James Joyce, history is the nightmare from which these latest Thai conscripts cannot awake.) Also working this quiet ward is Yeng (Jarinpattra Rueangram), a young psychic who tries to tune into the soldiers’ dreams for the benefit of their families.
As it happens, the hospital was once the school Jen attended in her youth—and we come to learn of older, now buried, uses of this site. Jen’s journey also leads her into the future, the hospital as a dim, deserted ruin, adrift in dead leaves. In this domain, dreams—and time—are fluid; splendor sinks and decays, haunting Cemetery’s present, casting a shadow over tomorrow.
Cemetery of Splendor reveals itself to us by means of static camera shots that frame, often at some length, landscapes and people going about their everyday business. The duration of these shots immerses us ever more deeply in place and experience. These environs are where Weerasethakul himself once lived; we recognize the hospital from Syndromes and a Century. (A previous film can also be a buried foundation.) From the open windows of the ward, we can see a nearby park where Jen and Yeng eat lunch, and a construction area where a big, mechanical shovel is always at work, digging up and shifting piles of dirt. The purpose of this endless excavation—or why it stops—isn’t explained; it’s just another fact of life in this pastel-colored backwater.
Consistently viewed at some remove from the camera, except for one final jarring closeup, Jen wanders through Weerasethakul’s cemetery of splendor—apt image for Thailand and human history—on crutches, guided by the living and the dead alike. She’s like a distaff Fisher King, her lameness—one leg is painfully shorter than the other—a sign of her nation’s ills. Late in the film, in a long, disquieting take, Yeng, channeling a comatose soldier named Itt (gender and dream vs. actuality are as fluid as enchantment needs them to be), kneels before Jen to lave and lick her maimed leg; the tableau conjures a more challenging version of the weeping Magdalene washing Christ’s feet with her long hair—if that transgressive moment still packed a mythic punch in our secular age.
For awhile, nothing of a dramatic nature seems to be happening in Cemetery. But as always, Weerasethakul slowly, invisibly begins to work his trademark alchemy on landscape, weather, light, character and behavior. There’s irreducible mystery—and pleasure—in the way this artist reveals immanence in every aspect of the material world. This seamless transformation—suffusing the ordinary with supernatural significance, magicking the mundane into mysterious dream-vision—happens before our very eyes, but seeps slowly into our consciousness.
Once, at the end of day, Weerasethakul drenches village lanes in crimson light, which grows deeper and richer by the moment. It’s wizardry worthy of Merlin, the way figures drawn on a fence seem to come to life through the agency of that red gloom, and a streetcleaner napping on a bench morphs into a reclining god. In the hospital ward, where a slim standing lamp curved like a question mark flanks each bed, the eternal sleepers are drowned in successive tidal waves of red, white and blue light. Cinematic and metaphysical alchemy, this sumptuous passage makes the short hairs rise, as though we were witness to a Rapture.
Maybe it’s Cemetery’s ever-present breeze that carries Weerasethakul’s transformative pixie-dust. Sometimes soft, sometimes agitated, that mystic air is like the ceaseless movement of a sleeping god’s breath. A bare-assed bloke squats to defecate in a grove of restless fronds, provoking a Rabelaisian guffaw about what human beings really come down to; yet that foliage, animated by something stranger than ordinary wind, confers transcendence on a fundamental function. If Wordsworth were a modern man, he might well be Apichatpong Weerasethakul.
In the hospital, as Jen massages a handsome young soldier’s body with healing cream, he (Banlop Lomnoi) suddenly awakens, immediately apologizing for peeing so much (a catheter runs from his body to a hanging bag). Others periodically wake up as well, but flop back into sleep at the drop of a hat. Though she has an absentee American husband, the middle-aged Jen falls gently into love with her narcoleptic soldier-boy, whom she calls her new son, her little pup.
The future looks grim for the soldiers, according to two attractive young women who one day join Jen for lunch in the nearby park. As the three share longan fruit, the girls explain that the school-hospital is built on the site of an ancient battlefield where great kings still fight. Because these eternal combatants are drawing energy from the sleepers above, the soldiers can never fully awake. Jen takes in this news with wonderful aplomb, even when the girls explain that they are princesses from that long-ago era (we may have seen them earlier, as tacky mannequins in archaic dress, when Jen and her American hubby brought offerings to their shrine). “We are dead, too.” After a beat, Jen leans back into the chat, just a pleasant passing of time with new acquaintances. The dead princesses are as at home in the presentday park, savoring unflappable Jen’s fruit, as was the ghost who came to dinner in Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives.
The dead hand of the past rises from layers-deep Thai history, signaling the dreadful and splendid cycle of human history, which Weerasethakul evokes in repeated images of water wheels and overhead fans; and a sad-funny scene in the park where people—paired and alone—play musical chairs on stone benches facing the river. Constantly and randomly changing seats and partners, they are dancers in an eternal rondelay.
In a mesmerizing passage, the psychic-channeling-soldier Itt takes Jen on a room-by-room tour of a long-vanished palace. As the two amble through a haunted wood, dragging their feet through drifts of dry leaves, Yeng conjures a vision of ancient splendor so powerful you can almost see the footbath shaped in exquisite pink jade. Later, Jen gazes at a gaggle of kids playing ball among the heaps of dirt left by the shovel. There’s duration in her/our watching; slowly the children weaving among the dust they’ve raised during their game seem to shape-change into phantoms. Again, the blurring of the present and past is incremental; on this old ground, even children aren’t new.
Jen’s meandering walkabout appears to end in epiphany that shatters her serenity. Her final shell-shocked, eyes-wide-open closeup could signal that our Everywoman may have been slumbering as soundly as her dreaming soldier-boy. Perhaps it’s the human condition, our way of surviving too much reality.
Cemetery’s revelations that human history and experience seem doomed to repeat themselves ad infinitum shroud us in melancholy, maybe even despair. Certainly, no Arthurian knight will arrive to heal Jen’s leg and politically ailing Thailand, turning cemetery into paradisiacal garden where the footprints of risen gods breed flowers and resurrect splendor. Still, such is the white magic of Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s art (and his peculiar, invaluable sense of humor) that Cemetery of Splendor generates sustaining joy, even awe, out of metamorphoses both natural and supernatural.
Copyright © 2016 by Kathleen Murphy