With the spellbinding drama Cemetery of Splendour, Palme d’Or winner Apichatpong Weerasethakul has further cemented his place among the world’s masters of arthouse cinema. Set in the filmmaker’s hometown Khon Kaen in northern Thailand, the story involves an older woman with a hidden disability, a young girl who can communicate with the spirits and a group of narcoleptic soldiers condemned to eternal sleep in a hospital haunted with memories.
There are some unexpectedly funny moments in this film…
I actually think this is the darkest film I’ve made. It’s interesting that many people, especially French journalists, find the film light and funny. But most of the Thai audience find it dark and sad. For me it feels like revisiting elements from my previous movies, presented in a seemingly light way, but in fact it’s about being trapped in a dream you cannot wake up from.
You often give the supernatural a natural look.
I want to show that we live in this mixture of realities. In Thailand, with the combination of Buddhism and Hinduism, we’ve always believed in the invisible. Objects have spirits. People there tend to be aware that there’s another layer to what we see.
Does this spiritualism also play a part in politics?
Definitely. The military regime right now has built this big palace for fortune-tellers that they regularly visit. Sometimes they even travel to Burma to meet with their gurus. So religion and politics are closely integrated in Thailand.
You’ve been known to be critical of the current regime. Has it become more difficult to make films in Thailand since the military coup?
For artists and journalists there have always been many taboos in matters related to religion, politics and the monarchy. It got worse since the military regime came into power. Last week, our prime minister said, “Academics need to shut up and stop criticising me, or I can no longer guarantee their safety.” Basically he’s sending death threats to his opponents. So people are afraid. Facebook pages are being monitored and people have gone to jail because of that. People have started censoring themselves a lot. I’m not a political filmmaker – my films are more like a diary, they’re my expression of life. All the same, it’s become harder for me too, in the sense that Thai people have become more actively involved in politics in the past five or 10 years, so it’s almost impossible to differentiate between life and politics.
Is it true that you plan to make your next film in Mexico?
Yes. Part of it is to escape. Part of it is to look back with a different perspective, and maybe to compare histories, the brutality as well as the beauty.
There are some openly sexual situations in this film. What’s the place of sexuality in your movies?
Like politics, I think sexuality is a part of life. For me, homosexuality is not about gay parades, it is just there… There’s a high acceptance of non-heterosexuality among the Thais. Even though legally you can’t get married as a same-sex couple, you see many transsexual workers in the service industry – transvestite flight attendants, for example.
Your films have quite a few shots of people sleeping in them. What’s the reason behind that?
I think it has to do with escape. There are many ways in which one can look at the act of sleep. One can think of it as an escape to another reality, or an expression of powerlessness, something we cannot control. These aspects of sleep really interest me.
Cemetery of Splendour | Directed by Apichatpong Weerasethakul (Thailand 2015) with Jenjira Pongpas, Banlop Lomnoi. Opens at IFC Center in NYC March 4.