On the politics of Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s devastating Cemetery of Splendour, Inherent Vice’s countercultural ennui, and Mustang’s cultural barriers at the New Zealand International Film Festival.
Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s new film, Cemetery of Splendour, is devastating. Having faced criticism for his supposedly apolitical films—a charge which is hard to justify given the subtext of Blissfully Yours and Tropical Malady—Cemetery of Splendour arrives as the director’s most pointed effort yet, a kind of zombie film in which he mixes a banal horror with the dreamlike.
The film follows the inhabitants of a small village in Thailand’s northeast who care for soldiers who are suffering from a strange form of sleeping sickness. Jenjira (Jenjira Pongpas Widner) is a volunteer who looks after a particular soldier, Itt (Banlip Lomnoi). She interacts with a medium Keng (Jarinpattra Rueangram) and it turns out the soldiers’ souls are being sucked out of them by past kings, as their work involved the excavation of an ancient cemetery. Through this, Weerasethakul takes aim at two institutions of Thai society: the monarchy and the army. At a point in time in which Thailand is under a military junta who is appealing to a particular type of nationalism, the film feels particularly prescient. There’s a skewed and parasitic use of history, culture, and grand narratives by the institutions. The exhortation at the end of the film is for individuals to open their eyes.
But given this is an Apichatpong Weerasethakul film, it’s not going to be a straightforward piece of social realism, and he is more an heir to the likes of Buñuel or David Lynch than he is to most other political filmmakers. His images carry an unusual charge, his use of space is continually astonishing, and his images are frequently interrupted from their beauty by uncomfortable or bizarre interruptions—a blob appears on the lens, the colours of the unusual soldiers’ tubes change, a street-image becomes over-saturated. Memories from the past (a lake scene involving an unusual animal) is depicted as being of the present. An opulent historical palace is reimagined through words and a limping protagonist. There are, no doubt, many symbols that I would miss given their very Thai significance—Weerasethakul is after all a master of subtext. But the end result is nothing short of hypnotic.
For all of the wider political points being made, Weerasethakul also captures the difficulty of everyday Thais to reconcile their own personal pasts. It’s all very well for the institutions to take advantage of a simplified and ideologically useful past, but Apichatpong suggests it’s particularly difficult for individuals to make sense of one’s own life. He presents a person’s life as playing out via dreams, hallucinations, moments of clarity, repressed memories, banal everydayness, and so on. Jenjira acts selflessly acts towards the powerful (and less deserving), but she is also the victim of a political trauma. She carries a scar and a shorter leg from an unresolved memory from her past—the region was seen by central government as a communist breeding ground, formed a key locale for the Communist insurgencies in the 1960s and 1970s, and there were skirmishes with Laotian forces. Cemetery of Splendour was reportedly formed after numerous discussions with Jenjira, and Weerasethakul frames her life with such generosity and understanding, that he subverts any potential political pessimism. The film is also a biography as a result, as Weerasethakul helps assemble Jenjira’s past and present, and hopefully suggests her future, through capturing the mysteriousness of her everyday life. And that, undoubtedly given the circumstances and wider narratives in play, is a most subversive approach to take.
It is a sad reflection of current times—and further confirmation of the importance of the New Zealand International Film Festival—that a film like Inherent Vice has remained absent from local cinemas up until this point. With its all-star cast, rich period setting, champion director, and high comedic values, it would have once upon a time been a dead-cert. But then again, The Master baffled many (not us at Lumière who uniformly called it a masterpiece) and Inherent Vice is based on a Thomas Pynchon novel. This is the first film adaptation of Pynchon’s work on account of his perceived difficulty, a reputation that is perhaps overstated: Pynchon’s later work in particular is more ‘filmable’, and his use of humour and intelligence is surely translatable to the screen. And Anderson succeeds, carrying on his eclectic career-wide jaunt through the 20th Century.
Anderson’s last two films (The Master and There Will Be Blood) used small stories to discuss grand narratives, and to capture the creation of a particular type of American myth-making. It’s easy to see where Anderson’s attraction to Pynchon’s material comes from. Ostensibly, Inherent Vice looks at the travails of stoner private detective Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) who has been asked by his ex-girlfriend Shasta (Katherine Waterston) to investigate her current lover. The quest leads Doc around all parts of Los Angeles, circa 1970, and incorporates the Pynchonian eclectic cast of characters (although minus Pynchon’s encyclopaedia pop cultural references): Aryan Brotherhood, property magnates, Vietnamese drug peddlers, the LAPD (a particularly excellent Josh Brolin), skateboarders, hippie freaks, amongst many others. The narrative gets lost—it’s Pynchon, after all—as Sportello finds himself more and more out of his depth.
Through this chaos, Anderson captures a certain countercultural ennui. The film shows freedom and free love and self-fulfilment, for what it was worth, becoming subsumed by nostalgia, bourgeois sensibilities (the family unit), and love. The triggers for such “selling out” include paranoia (the numerous references to conspiracy theories, Charles Manson, unsolved mysteries such as the Bermuda Triangle), repression (Doc finds himself up against those with more power than him, and barely escapes intact time after time), solipsism (there is not a single character not out for him or herself in the film, except the generous Doc), and an overall mood of uncertainty. Such states of being are almost in-built into the noir genre. (Anderson almost goes back to another Altman reference, with The Long Goodbye appearing to be a particular touchstone.)
He adds to this uncertainty by creating unstable images, primarily through his editing. He pushes the approach he used in The Master further in its Nouvelle Vague-esque temporal/spatial incoherency. The misc en scene of the dentist room, with its lack of continuity editing, mirrors both the paranoia of the powerless (Doc) and the powerful (played by Martin Short), until both end up going on a wild ride of cocaine and maniacal driving. Time as a way of capturing Doc and Shasta’s relationship appears almost cruel to Doc. The architecture of the film captures a geographically diverse Los Angeles (Chinatown becomes another touchstone), a city expanding outwards and upwards in all sorts of chaotic ways. Signs and motifs are completely unstable, and Anderson adopts Pynchon’s gleeful use of symbols that are simply red herrings and ultimately meaningless (the golden fang for example). Indeed, to try to capture meaning in such a world is ultimately a futile experience.
Anderson’s approach is to use such moods so that it seems almost inevitable that “stability” in something firmer is sought by the characters. While it’s hard to tell where Doc might end up, the chaotic world around him appears to have ‘sorted’ itself out—solipsism wins the day. It’s certainly not according to any of the ideals of the countercultural era.
With Mustang, a film set around a group of sisters locked up in a house to ‘protect’ them, comparisons to The Virgin Suicides are inevitable but also misleading—for one, it’s far more political than Sofia Coppola’s debut feature. Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s film captures a group of girls caught between two sets of expectations: one being the expectations of their family, and the other simply their own dreams.
The film opens bucolically. Five orphaned sisters are seen playing with a group of guys in the sea, the end of school and the start of holidays seeming innocent and carefree. It swiftly cuts to the girls receiving a beating by their grandmother, and then uncle, after a concerned neighbour reported them for their ‘scandalous’ behaviour. From there, the film shifts to the girls’ increasing imprisonment, as their makeshift family tries to impose traditional wifely roles on them. The film gallops towards a thrilling climax, in which the girls—or at least some of them—seek an escape from the house.
It’s easy to see Mustang as a critique of traditional Turkish values, as it is for Western stereotypes about Islam to feed into analysing the film. And yet it captures two sides of Turkey, one in which the more Westward looking Istanbul (a “thousand kilometres away”) is seen as freedom, whereas a traditional environment is seen as stultifying. There’s also potency in the girls’ unity: the moment one of the girls is lost, the girls’ collective power to stand up for themselves becomes weaker. That said, one of the girls finds happiness in marriage. There are also moments in which the older women band together to help the young girls—a hilarious scene involves an aunt trying to cover for the girls after learning they snuck away to a football game. It’d be simplistic to suggest that Ergüven presents only one possible option for the girls.
In a wider sense, the house acts as a metaphor for barriers people place to protect themselves and their family. There is no doubt that the grandmother and the uncle (though less so the latter given his odious behaviour) believe they have the girls’ best interests in mind. Once stuck inside, the girls lose their identity, are victim to horrific treatment (which can go unpunished), and lose their ability to make any choice as to their future. The film attacks the idea of a one-size fits-all cultural space; the effervescence of the girls and their distinct personalities suggest that this would simply be impossible. In a telling irony, the bars put in to keep the girls from escaping prevent the uncle from trying to get back in when he is locked out.
Mustang is a well-mounted film, with clear foregrounding and narrative arc. The camera-work is insistent and focuses on faces and bodies, heightening the tension between freedom and repression. At times it feels a little too contrived narrative-wise, and as a result, jars a little when shifting between moodier moments of contemplation and thriller narrative (The Virgin Suicides, for all of its faults, was more rigorous in that regard). But the acting in particular adds an emotional heft to the film. The girls’ ultimate dispersal suggests—hopefully, perhaps—that such barriers can never serve their desired purpose.