One of the most obvious and satisfying pleasures of the New York Film Festival is the thrill of being exposed to cinema from outside my native United States. There are two notable thoughts that get in the way of this pleasure: first, recalling that the two dozen or so foreign films playing there are a microscopic sample of all the high-quality work produced outside the U.S. every year, nearly all of which I’ll never get the opportunity to see. Then there’s a more conflicted thought, at once exciting and daunting—the knowledge that the films at the festival often assume a level of knowledge of another country’s history and politics that, quite frankly, I don’t have.
Rarely has a foreign film addressed the imbalance between America’s consumption of foreign cinema and America’s knowledge of the cultures that produce this cinema than in an early scene from Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Cemetery of Splendour, which shows at NYFF later this month. A middle-aged nurse, Jenjira (played by Jenjira Pongpas), sets a small religious object on a candlelit altar. Her companion, a good-natured American named Richard, who’s come to visit Jenjira in Thailand after making her acquaintance on the Internet, smiles politely—to him the object, a little painted animal, looks like a toy. Jenjira explains that she’s making an offering on behalf of one of her patients, a young soldier named Itt (Banlop Lomnoi) who suffers from a mysterious sleeping sickness—“You wouldn’t understand, honey,” she concludes. Oh, sure he would, he answers: Thai people are “very patriotic.”
Between 1973 and 2014, Thailand underwent a series of radical political changes that reversed its longstanding reputation as the most governmentally stable of the Southeast Asian nations, and continue to make a strong culture of state loyalty impossible. The student uprisings of 1973, led by young, university-educated Marxists, gave way to the military coup of 1976, followed by a long, fitful perestroika in which Thailand tried, and largely failed, to keep up with the “tiger economies” of Taiwan, Singapore, and South Korea. Last year, the Royal Thai Armed Forces launched another coup, dissolved the parliament, inaugurated a harsh program of censorship, and repealed the national constitution. The unity between state and citizen that Richard assumes betrays a Westerner’s habits of thinking, which Apichatpong, a Thai director whose films (the 2010 Palme d’Or winner Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives and 2006’s Syndromes and a Century most prominent among them) have been rightly lavished with praise and awards throughout the Western world, is particularly capable of spotting.
Though Apichatpong’s films center on the same handful of themes—war, memory, the past—this is the most political work of his that I’ve seen. My careless sketch of Thailand’s history can’t be used as a skeleton key for unlocking Cemetery’s mysteries, but it’s also a measure of the military brutality and uneasy history that haunt every second of the film. Toward the end, Jenjira passes by a memorial to the victims of the air raids of the 1970s, and reveals the nasty leg wound she sustained as a child, which has forced her to use crutches for most of her life. To say that Cemetery is all about the air raids or the military coup would be as shallow as saying that Kane is all about the sled. To ignore the raids (or, for that matter, the sled) would be far worse.
At the same time that he foregrounds politics and history in Cemetery, Apichatpong takes on the mannerisms of another kind of filmmaker: the “artist of sleep.” To grasp the extent of this achievement, one need only remember the Surrealists, who maintained that the greatest art is produced in the limbo state between wakefulness and slumber. Jenjira’s patients rest in a dusty schoolroom that doubles as a hospital; decorated with glowing neon lights, it looks more like a nursery. When the patients wake up from their sleeping sickness for a few hours, they’re walked through a seemingly self-contained community, where a pack of construction machines constantly dig (it’s is never explained why) and teenagers play a dizzying game of musical chairs. While the characters spend only a tiny fraction of their days awake, sleep itself seems like a collection of banal bodily process—urination, sweating, breathing. It’s only in the seconds before Itt loses consciousness that he and Jenjira reach, in perfect Surrealist form, their greatest moments of intimacy, creativity, and imagination.
And yet Apichatpong avoids Surrealism’s worst clichés. Watching his eerie yet utterly peaceful shots of water, earth, and electric light, one is never shocked, and thus never inclined to do anything but accept what one sees. I’m reminded of the observation Werner Herzog once made about the avant-garde’s shortcomings: its goals of provocation and disturbance, he argued, can’t help but fall victim to the laws of diminishing marginal returns—in 1931, a melting clock may be a ferocious assault on the bourgeois establishment; in 2015, it’s a kitchen magnet. Apichatpong, savvier than his predecessors, doesn’t aim for provocation of any kind (in one hilarious scene, he imitates and then tears apart every movie that does), and consequently, one never tires of his inventions. Indeed, it would be wrong to call him a Surrealist at all, since Surrealism hinges on the fusion of two inherently incompatible worlds: the real and the unconscious. “Magical realism” would be the wrong classification for Cemetery’s aesthetic, too, since the name itself implies that magic and reality are two different things. Apichatpong’s take on magic is altogether different—he doesn’t whole-heartedly embrace his country’s beliefs in reincarnation and animism, but neither does he condescend to them.
Though I’ll never manage to convey the tone of this film, I’ve felt obliged to try, since it has moments that rank among the most awe-inspiring I’ve had the privilege of seeing in a long time. One 20-minute scene is so magnificent that it threatens to swallow up the other 100 minutes in its depths: as Jenjira drags Itt back to his bed (following the movie-within-the-movie as if to say, “this is how it’s done”), she disappears into an escalator crowded with oblivious moviegoers. This isn’t a case of style drowning out character, though Apichatpong, shooting in digital for the first time, must have been sorely tempted in such a direction. He can find life in anything, even the ceiling fans that hang above the sleeping soldiers, the hi-res camera “freezing” their rotating blades. As I felt my brain struggling to make sense of this simplest of sights, I realized that Apichatpong had tricked me into practicing meditation.
But because meditation hinges on the un-saying of truth, I found myself surprised that Cemetery ended with an uncharacteristically tidy “checking off” of its symbols and themes. Jenjira gets a poignant backstory; sleep, war, memory, and those mysterious bulldozers are dutifully pointed out. No new meaning comes of the final scenes—instead, we’re reminded, a little too forcefully, of the symbols’ ambiguity. It’s a frustratingly literal way to talk about the non-literal that, to my mind, confirms the incompatibility of Apichatpong’s two primary concerns, the specificity of politics and the universality of sleep. On the other hand, it’s a measure of his immense artistry that I’m complaining at all—even if he never quite succeeds in joining the two halves of his film together, each is rich enough to stand on its own.
The 53rd New York Film Festival runs from September 25 to October 11 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center.