Last week, I caught two of GSC’s International Screens movies, both of which were released in collaboration with Astro Shaw.
Cemetery of Splendour
Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s films are very much like David Lynch’s films – everybody claims to love them, but are hard-pressed to explain what they’re really about. No one has so far successfully or convincingly explained to me just what the hell Eraserhead is about. And no one has really figured out what that monster is doing in the back alley in Mulholland Drive.
I love Apichatpong’s Tropical Malady, and I think I know what it’s about, but I can’t really be sure. The film plays in two distinct parts. It begins with soldiers transporting a body found in an open, grassy field. Then it focuses on the blooming love between a soldier and a young civilian, the latter presumably bi-sexual because there’s a scene of him making eyes at a pretty girl in a bus. Then when the passion starts to grow, the soldier suddenly walks into the darkness of night and disappears. He then ends up running around a sunless jungle, naked, at one point even having a conversation with a talking monkey. Is it about the bestial nature of man? Beats me.
But Apichatpong is a unique filmmaker who has found his own cinematic language, one in which words are not that important. In Tropical Malady, it’s the characters facial expressions and gestures that provide the “dialogue.” It’s minimalism that seeks to circumvent the need for any cinematic embellishments. I believe Apichatpong takes slices of real life, verbatim, and splices them together to create a cerebral experience rather than employ theatrics or any kind of cinematic conventions. What he does do is add a layer of fantasy and mysticism, which really is a mirror of Thai life.
But what Cemetery of Splendour resembles most is not Tropical Malady or Uncle Boonme, but Blissfully Yours, his debut feature film. The 2002 film was one that I found excruciatingly frustrating. It felt like a story pulled apart into several fractures, and joined together with tenuous connections. While Cemetery is tighter, it’s still as frustrating. But every Apichatpong film still fascinates with its fantastical ideas of overlapping dimensions and spaces, despite whatever complaints one may have with it.
Here, it’s the political, mystical and spiritual ramifications of being asleep to one’s surroundings. A group of soldiers become narcoleptic for reasons no one can fathom, falling asleep for long periods of time, and occasionally waking up to have a meal, go to the cinema. A character who cares for and interacts with one of the soldiers learns that their spirits have been taken by past kings to fight for them, because the place where they are used to be a cemetery for royals. (The original title of the film was “Cemetery of Kings,” but it had to be changed to avoid running afoul of the lese majeste law in Thailand.)
The film opens with a black screen and sounds of an excavator digging, emulating the soldiers’ perspective of not seeing but only hearing, also clueing us in on Apichatpong’s idiosyncratic idea of a cinema of not words and pictures, but of the essence of what makes us human.
I guess today’s horror film fans are divided into two camps – those who like jump-scares and those who don’t. The purveyors of jump-scare movies are mostly in Hollywood (thankfully). In other parts of the world there are still horror movies that adhere to the old-school aesthetics and subtleties. Australia had The Babadook, South Korea gave us The Wailing. And sometimes North America gives us films like It Follows and Spring.
Then, there’s Germany’s Goodnight, Mommy that plays psychological games with its audience. It’s a thriller bordering on horror – the mother with a bandaged face recalls classic Universal horror and European expressionism. It essentially deals with people living in isolation, reminding us of Alejandro Amenabar’s underrated The Others. This itself already creates a disturbing sense of something not quite within our known sphere of existence. In short, it’s an intrigue that always works. Add to that the story of a pair of twin boys waiting for their mother to come home after reconstructive surgery to her face, and you have something of a Hitchcockian pressure-cooker waiting to explode. (Interestingly, why are twins always a scary element in horror?)
Unfortunately, if you’ve seen enough of this type of thrillers, you will be able to immediately identify the decoys and diversions from the real mystery. The twist isn’t something new either; a horror movie from another country had already done the same some years ago. I decline to name that other film because it would be a major spoiler.
Despite all this, Goodnight, Mommy is still a well-made thriller, and the two boys are unnerving in their increasing desperation that leads to violence. Traditional-minded parents might think this is a caution against giving your children too much freedom, but there’s actually a lot more going on in the story. It’s certainly a window into a broken home, of missing parents or those who occasionally turn up to fulfill their parental duty.