Apichatpong Weerasethakul Talks ‘Cemetery of Splendour’
In Cemetery of Splendour, Jenjira (Jenjira Pongpas Widner) volunteers at a hospital in Khon Kaen to take care of soldiers suffering from a strange sleeping sickness. She takes care of Itt (Banlop Lomnoi), and she soon befriends him, along with a psychic (Jarinpattra Rueangram) who communicates with the sleeping soldiers. During her volunteering, Jen learns through a surreal encounter that the hospital’s location used to be a cemetery for kings in ancient times, and the spirits of these kings have recruited the soldiers to fight their battles in their dreams. As time goes on, and Jenjira’s bond with Itt grows, she begins questioning her own interpretation of what’s real and imagined.
Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s latest film, his first feature-length effort since he won the Palme d’Or in 2010 with Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, is another sublime effort from one of the best filmmakers working today. Creating a space where dreams, reality, fantasy, politics, fiction, non-fiction and other seemingly disparate concepts intermingle with one another, the film is a serene, meditative experience where anything feels possible.
We spoke to Apichatpong Weerasethakul at the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival about Cemetery of Splendour. Read the full interview below, and be sure to catch Cemetery of Splendour in theatres during its limited run.
Cemetery of Splendour is now playing in limited release in the US, and will open Friday, March 11th, in Toronto, Ontario.
This is your first feature-length film in five years. Talk about the evolution of this film after Uncle Boonmee.
I think I am pretty interested in the idea of dreams and sleeping, so [after Boonmee] I made installations and other work related to dreams as a way to escape reality, and they influenced this film. But [the film] developed pretty organically with my relationship with Jen. Also, the political situation in Thailand is getting worse and worse. I think the movie reflects that kind of confusion and sadness at the same time.
You went back to your hometown to make this film, and you’ve spoken about engaging with your memories. I’m curious as to how important memory is to you, and if you feel it’s necessary to dive back into them.
I question my memory because it’s very short term in contrast to Jen, who remembers everything, so we make a good combination. I think memory is pretty malleable, and for our generation memory is shaped a lot by cinema. So for me, it’s very interesting to try and mimic this in the movie, to ask questions about reality and if it really exists in our everyday life, because we look at things differently according to our experience. The movie is like that, along with how to give the audience a lot of space for interpretation and imagination to suggest and build their own images.
You’re pulling from very personal and subjective experiences to make this film. What is your process like when it comes to translating these experiences into something for audiences to watch?
I don’t know. Since the beginning, I’ve just made movies for myself and, hopefully, the audience could somehow relate to the rhythm of the narrative over the years. It kind of makes sense that people get used to certain logical or illogical things in my films because it’s like a friendship. You start to learn, so it’s a span of time and not only about a single movie.
Did the film change from how you originally developed it once you worked on set and in post-production?
It’s always changing, but the core is there. It’s pretty straightforward, especially for this film. We don’t have much improvisation. We did [improvise] in the pre-production rehearsal, it changed quite a bit for dialogue and movement, but overall it’s pretty clear from the beginning. And we shuffled quite a bit in the editing room, but I have to say that it is more than I expected. When I watched the finished film, I cried. I didn’t expect that to happen. I didn’t expect it to have such an emotional link to myself.
What brought that reaction out of you?
I think it was the feeling of powerlessness. When I watched the film through the eyes of Jenjira, her desire and her inability to grasp the difference between reality and fantasy.
Do you feel there are many people like Jenjira who find themselves lost between reality and fantasy?
I’m sure for us, Thai people at this time, we would feel there’s kind of an unstable future. I hope it can translate to any audience.
Your film is very political, but audiences outside of Thailand might not pick up on that aspect if they’re unaware of the situation in your country.
I’m making the film I want to make that I feel comfortable looking at. It doesn’t feel like an overload of information like you’re reading a report or something, but as long as the audience can connect to it spiritually it can lead to curiosity and, I don’t know, googling [Laughs]. I think my job is only the beginning part.
A lot of things are converging in your film at the school: military, education, health, and even technology with the construction going on. What draws you to merging all these things together into one place?
It may be about how our brain works, all these spaces collapsing to form a new experience. I am just trying to make sense of my memory and the sadness of leaving Khon Kaen as well.
Do you feel sad when you go back to your hometown?
Is it nostalgia? Do you wish your town was back to the way it was when you were younger?
No, but I’m a very nostalgic person. I look at everything from the perspective of my past experiences. I always ask or always see what has changed or what is left. It’s especially obvious in my hometown because it’s been changing very quickly.
You’ve been working with Jenjira for a while, and you’ve worked with Banlop before as well. Are you naturally inclined to want to work with Jen and other actors from your previous films whenever you start a new project?
Yes, it’s automatic. I like to [be updated] and continue following their trajectory in life. Now Jen got married to an American, and she got her leg operated on.
How is she now after the surgery to stretch her leg?
It’s strange because the process was that you have to stretch the leg with this huge weight until it’s the same length as the other leg, and then you operate to make it stable. She passed the stretch process and got operated on, but after the operation it moved back. It’s still better than before, but her leg is about four centimeters shorter now instead of ten.
How do you feel about the future of Thailand?
It surprised me that Thailand lasted this long, but I don’t see the future actually. I just feel that this military is raping the country in the name of national security that I think it’s kind of sad to everyone. But at the same we are just part of the world and the borders are disappearing. It’s a conflicted feeling. I feel hope for cinema, but at the same time, I feel hopeless for the country.
You’ve said you’re interested in working in South America next. Do you feel like you’re finished with making films in Thailand?
I feel that in Thailand it’s finished for feature films. I set a rule that I’d like to make a short film in Thailand once a month in exchange for being able to go out and make a feature. It’s a different contract with myself.