“Developing country” is a description that is almost completely owned by Thailand. The development is raw: tall buildings of striking design tower over tin shacks that house construction workers, their families, and their dogs; ramshackle buses stand still, paralyzed by traffic under the elevated tracks of the Skytrain; children wearing the uniforms of prestigious private schools have after- school snacks in shopping malls of regal splendor while their less fortunate counterparts sell flowers on the streets outside. It’s become a photo gallery of traveler’s clichés: barefooted monks strolling past Tiffany’s, a Mercedes pulling up to buy food from a street vendor’s cart, the homeowners selling their recyclable papers and cans for what amounts to pennies to a man in tattered clothing who drives from house to house on a motor-scooter with a wooden platform tacked onto the back where he places his gleanings.
Development is less stark but always present in Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s latest film about his home country, Cemetery of Splendor. He has set it in Khon Kaen, the major city in Thailand’s Northeast and one of the country’s largest, but the movie’s setting is rural. An improvised hospital that has been put in an abandoned school building sits beside a lake, surrounded by trees and near a small temple. Across the water, the shadows of modern buildings break the dome of open sky that features heavily in the film; in a setting this placidly bucolic, days are given drama only from the storms that might break from the puffy-cotton clouds.
The silence is broken by the daily noise of construction equipment that excavate a large piece of ground near the hospital. Nobody knows why, nobody seems to care. It’s a government secret, one person speculates, so secret that there’s no need to hide what’s being done. In the hospital are beds filled with soldiers, spellbound men who spend most of their time in sleep that resembles a coma. Body functions take place without interrupting their slumber; catheters drain urine, and erections caused by dreams are noted with amusement by the hospital staff. The men awaken long enough to eat something and often collapse facedown into their plates midmeal.
Like all of Apichatpong’s movies, this is one is surreal and demands more than one viewing to appreciate. The film’s pace mirrors the lassitude of a Thai afternoon, its unending hours punctuated by meals and snacks and random snatches of chatter. The conversations, though brief, are telling ones. Beautiful ghosts, figures venerated in a local shrine, come to one of the hospital volunteers to tell her that the hospital is built upon the burial ground of past kings who are sapping the energy of the sleeping soldiers to fight ghostly battles; the men will never awaken fully. A young psychic has been summoned to their bedsides to penetrate their dreams and offers to lead the volunteer into the sleeping world of the soldier she has informally adopted as her son. It is a palatial vision, more glorious than anything the volunteer has dreamed of herself, and as the psychic reveals the soldier’s dream world, the volunteer traces her own memories on the grounds of what was once her schoolyard.
Both journeys are equally spectral; a former bomb shelter for children who were threatened by the war in nearby Laos still stands in place near broken statues that filled the grounds of the ancient kings who once ruled this place. These remnants of history, these provinces of memory, are all fragile and doomed, threatened by the buildings that are making their slow progression across the city and the escalators within them that carry mute and passive shoppers, the mysterious backhoes that scoop sacred ground from a royal cemetery.
On one lazy afternoon, the hospital volunteer shares a meal with her adopted soldier-son, who quotes the famous maxim of the revered historical monarch, King Ramkhamhaeng, “There is fish In the river, rice in the fields.” “Rice in the fields and then there is nothing,” is her response, which would be a criminal act of lese majeste in Thailand.
At the end of the movie, she and the soldier exchange dreams. Whatever she is given remains a secret but it has stripped the beauty from her aging face. The close of the story shows her sitting near the excavation site, her eyes staring fixedly at some terrible vision that only she can see.