At the beginning of Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s 2015 film Cemetery of Splendor, set in rural northeastern Thailand, about ten soldiers have been struck by a mysterious sleeping sickness. They lie recuperating at a makeshift hospital, an abandoned school that the film’s lead character, Jen (Jenjira Pongpas Widner), attended as a child. The soldiers awaken for brief periods only to nod off mid-activity. Jen watches over and cares for them. Over time she becomes close to one of the soldiers, Itt (Banlop Lomnoi), whom she begins to refer to as her son.
There’s an unforgettable scene toward the close of the film. Jen and Itt are resting on a bench in the woods. Itt has just toured Jen through a palace where he lived in a past life, centuries ago. Though the palace’s ruins are barely visible, Itt conjures their earlier magnificence through words and gestures. But during this tour, Itt’s body lies in slumbering reverie nearby. His consciousness guides Jen through the palace in the material form of the medium Keng (Jarinpattra Rueangram), a young woman who sees and voices what the sleeping soldiers dream or have experienced in earlier incarnations.
Seated on the bench, Jen raises her skirt to show Itt/Keng the injury that has shortened one of her legs by 10 centimeters and keeps her in crutches. Faced with Jen’s scars, Itt/Keng picks up a bottle of water into which Jen has mixed goji berries and gingko biloba. He pours the curative liquid gently onto her exposed flesh, gently massaging the pale red rivulets into her leg. The camera lingers for the duration of this naked act of care and intimacy. It lets unfold the contact of bodies and spirits across time, space, and personhood. There is no explicit romance between Jen and Itt, nor between Jen and Keng. Instead, Jen’s disability, Itt’s illness, and Keng’s communicative capacities become the conditions of possibility for complex forms of intimacy, sensuousness, and temporality. The characters are walking, wandering inscriptions of a kind of longue durée of Thai history.
There’s a contrast in the film between the multiple, slow times of Jen, Itt, and Keng’s relationship and images of discipline, uniformity, and coordination. In one scene, Jen carefully steps over a sign declaring that the highest form of human is a disciplined one (my paraphrasing from memory) as she walks across the barely illuminated, uneven ground outside the school-turned-hospital. The film’s concluding sequence presents an outdoor aerobics class where participants move their able bodies in spirited sync, then cuts to a sports match taking place across an open field. In the context of Thailand’s present state of military rule under the National Council of Peace and Order and the institution of “reeducation” camps for critics of the regime—a state of unfreedom that Apichatpong has addressed—disability and illness in Cemetery of Splendor take on quiet political salience. The film’s injured, ill, and spectral characters embody rest, inertia, and imagination as modes of asserting individual and collective agency, as opposed to overt physical resistance.