These gorgeous works take the basic style of Japan’s ukiyo-e artists and add Tsuchimochi’s unique whimsy, vibrant colors, and occasional surrealist touches (including many cute animals!)
Cemetery of Splendor (Rak Ti Khon Kaen), a 2015 film written and directed by Apichatpong Weerasethakul, is, like the Thai director’s other works, mysterious, hypnotic, languorous in pace, and casually otherworldly. It won a fair amount of praise, with Cahiers du Cinema judging it the second best film of 2015, and Sight & Sound ranking it at number 5. If action and a straight-line narrative are what you’re after in a film, Weerasethakul’s works are probably not for you. But if you enjoy being immersed in world that resembles our own but is also strange, enigmatic, and suffused with magic, then Cemetery of Splendor is well worth investigating.
A long dark screen opens the film, into which industrial and jungle sounds gradually emerge. Heavy machinery is digging dirt while soldiers stand by. We suddenly cut to someone sleeping, his IV bag letting us know we’re in a medical setting. Many others sleep near him.
A mysterious sleeping sickness has stricken a group of soldiers. They have been transferred to a temporary clinic set up in a former school. Jenjira, or Jen (Jenjira Pongpas), a housewife who is volunteering at the clinic, attended school in the same building many years before. Her memories of growing up in that neighborhood take on a new life as she takes care of Itt (Banlop Lomnoi), one of the sleeping soldiers for whom she feels a mysterious attraction. Another volunteer, Keng (Jarinpattra Rueangram), is a medium who uses her powers to communicate with the sleeping men.
While Jen is applying lotion to Itt’s skin one day, he suddenly wakes up. They start to converse and get to know one another, and later make a couple of excursions. One is to a movie theater where, amusingly, we see the trailer for some sort of horror film, The Iron-Coffin Killer. Its drama, explosions, and weird creatures are much in contrast to the perfectly matter-of-fact way in which the supernatural manifests itself in Cemetery of Splendor. Just as amusingly, we subsequently move to the busy theater lobby, where in the distance we see Jen, followed by Itt who, suddenly asleep again, is being carried out of the theater by attendants. That scene cross-fades into a gorgeous shot of the special lamps that have been installed in the clinic; their lights gradually moving through a range of colors, therapeutically easing the men’s sleep.
At a local shrine, two female mannequins preside over small animal figures and other offerings. The two goddesses come to life – things like that happen in Weerasethakul’s world – and inform Jen that the clinic sits on the site of a very old cemetery, where ancient kings are laid to rest. Those kings are continuing their warfare in the afterlife, drawing on the energies of the sleeping soldiers to fight.
In one of my favorite scenes, the young psychic Keng takes the spirit of Itt within herself, and she escorts Jen through the world that Itt sees as he sleeps, the old temple and its grounds that used to be located there. And Jen simultaneously guides Itt/Keng through the present-day forest that she knows well from her youth. It was once a park, with sculptures now overgrown by the forest. Signs with brief sayings are scattered throughout – one reads, “Time left unused is the longest time.” Another says, “When we offend someone, we want to be forgiven. But when we are offended, we forget how to forgive.”
Jen has had to deal with her own medical issue, as one of her legs is ten centimeters shorter than the other; she wears a special shoe and needs to use crutches to get around. In one strange, sensual scene, Keng pours herbal water on Jen’s injured leg and, in what she calls “therapy,” licks it off, causing Jen to cry, overwhelmed with emotion.
Then suddenly we’re back in the clinic. Itt is in bed asleep, and Jen sleeps with her head next to him. Both awaken, and they each say that they can see one another’s dreams. Was everything we’d just seen a dream? We start to question whether Itt ever actually awakened; it could well be that much of what we’ve been witnessing happened only within Jen’s imagination.
It seems reasonable to guess that the sleeping epidemic serves as a metaphor. But for what? Weerasethakul, or “Joe” as he is known to many, makes very personal films, but is also acutely aware of the political situation around him in Thailand. The concept of a sleeping sickness apparently derived from a true story of an outbreak of some disease that caused forty Thai soldiers to be quarantined. This happened about three years before Cemetery of Splendor was made, and coincided with a wave of political protests in the country. Thailand has had a turbulent recent history of coups, protests, and violence. There must be a connection between the soldiers, their sickness, and contemporary events – long-dead warriors who continue to sap the energies of today’s young men? As usual, however, Weerasethakul doesn’t spell it out.
Many of the elements that make up Weerasethakul’s filmic world recur in Cemetery of Splendor. Actors that appear here, like Jenjira Pongpas, are regulars in his films. There’s a densely wooded jungle setting, as in Tropical Malady and Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives. The rural clinic recalls the hospital in Syndromes and a Century, where doctors once again play a central role, as they do in Blissfully Yours (both of Weerasethakul’s parents were physicians). Soldiers are also prominent players in Tropical Malady.
Weerasethakul has a fondness for long shots. He doesn’t like to get in the faces of his characters, but allows them space and their own inner lives within a larger setting. Unlike some of his other films, there are no otherworldly animals in Cemetery of Splendor, although a couple of goddesses make an appearance, and Weerasethakul admitted in an interview that a “monster” scene was cut from the film. All his films move so easily from dream to reality and back that it is often hard to distinguish between the two.
Cemetery of Splendor closes with a wonderfully mysterious scene: a group of people dance to some lighthearted pop music (one of the rare times that music appears in the film) while a voice-over talks in poetic terms about the majesty of the past. Some kids play soccer amid the mounds left by the construction crews outside the clinic while Jen looks on, wide eyed. Jen has obviously discovered something new about herself and her world. Her wide eyes may indicate fear, or a sense of wonder, or perhaps she is seeing something that we are not. We are left to resolve that, and so many other enigmas that populate this lovely, haunting film, for ourselves.
Norman Mailer may not be the last person one would imagine playing with Legos, but he’d probably be pretty far down on the list. Yet the hard-boiled author of The Naked and the Dead, The Executioner’s Song, and Harlot’s Ghost actually spent some time in 1965 building a quite beautiful futuristic city.
Mailer took his “City of The Future,” which he dubbed “Mile High City,” very seriously indeed. It was announced for the first time in the magazine Architectural Forum and in The New York Times Magazine. Mailer came to loathe the manner in which New York was growing, and wanted to come up with his own alternative. He looked up, rather than out, in contemplating how the enormous cities of the future might look: “the cities must climb, they must not spread, they must build up, not by increments, but by leaps, up and up, up to the heavens.”
Mailer turned over most of the actual construction of his Lego metropolis to his wife’s stepbrother Charlie Brown and his friend Eldred Mowery. To Mailer’s precise directions, they built the city on a four-by-eight-foot sheet of plywood, supported by five-foot legs. The final product, which incorporated some 20,000 Lego pieces, stood about seven feet tall.
Each Lego block was said to represent a prefabricated box girder, 50 by 25 by 12 feet, inside which a single apartment would be built. The actual building would be around 3,000 feet high, and could house 60,000 people. Even within such a mass-produced kind of structure, a lot of variety of form is possible, as is visible in the photos.
Mailer is quoted in an article at greg.org as saying, “It was very much opposed to Le Corbusier. I kept thinking of Mont Saint-Michel. Each Lego brick represents an apartment. There’d be something like twelve thousand apartments. The philosophers would live at the top. The call girls would live in the white bricks, and the corporate executives would live in the black.”
Mailer admitted to a few practical problems if this city were actually built. For instance, if you lived on one of the top floors, you might have to slide down a cable to get to the ground (steps and an elevator would be available for some). “Once it was cabled up, those who were adventurous could slide down. It would be great fun to start the day off. Put Starbucks out of business.”
A New Yorker article included a photo of the city by Simeon C. Marshall that was later used as the cover of Mailer’s 1966 collection of essays Cannibals and Christians. At one point, the Museum of Modern Art expressed an interest in displaying the model. But Mailer found that there was no practical way to move it short of disassembling it, which he refused to do.
For several decades the city remained on display in Mailer’s apartment. His wife Beverly noted, “It was a bitch to dust.” But there has been no word of its fate since his death in 2007. I hope that the city still exists.
Over 80,000 woodblocks, created in the mid thirteenth century and containing one of the oldest and most complete collections of Buddhist texts in the world, the Tripitaka Koreana, or Korean Buddhist Canon, is a significant accomplishment in world history.
The spread of Buddhism throughout Asia was dependent in large part on the availability of the important Buddhist scriptures, and translations thereof. The generally accepted date for the beginning of Buddhism in Korea is 372 CE, around three centuries after it had arrived in China, as translations from Sanskrit to Chinese of important Buddhist texts, along with commentaries on them, started making their way from China to Korea.
Initially, these were in the form of handwritten manuscripts. In the tenth century, the Chinese started to carve the central Buddhist canon onto wooden printing blocks. From these, xylographs (prints made from woodblocks) could be made in large numbers. The first set of such carvings was executed between 971 and 983. Koreans soon became aware of this and requested their own print, which arrived in 991.
In 1010 the Khitan invaded Korea, and it is said that the Korean King Hyonjong vowed that if they could be expelled from his country, he would have a new set of carvings of those Buddhist texts created. That happened and the King followed through, resulting in the first Korean carvings, completed in 1087. By that time the central canon had grown, supplemented by further texts brought from China and Japan by visiting Korean monks. As a result, by the end of the eleventh century Korea possessed one of the most comprehensive collections of Buddhist texts to be found anywhere in the world.
But then, in 1231 CE, the Mongols invaded. King Kojong had to leave his capital, and the precious set of woodblocks were taken to a distant monastery. Not long after, the Mongols overran that monastery and burned the entire set of blocks. Four years later, the task of creating a new set of blocks got underway, continuing from 1236 to 1251.
That set has been preserved to the present day as the Tripitaka Koreana. Totaling 1,511 titles and 6,568 volumes, the Tripitaka Koreana remains among the most complete and accurate collections of ancient Buddhist texts. It is so accurate, in fact, that the Japanese, Chinese, and Taiwanese editions of the Tripitaka are based on the Korean version. Tripitaka, by the way, means “three baskets,” referring to the three categories of writings included within the canon: rules for monastic life, sutras or sermons of the Buddha, and Buddhist philosophy and interpretations.
Also called the Goryeo Tripitaka (Goryeo being the dynasty that ruled Korea during the tenth to fourteenth centuries, and the source of the country’s modern name) or Palman Daejanggyeong (Eighty-Thousand Tripitaka), the Tripitaka Koreana consists of 81,258 blocks, each twenty-seven inches in length, nearly ten inches in width, and more than an inch in thickness. Each is carved on both sides with twenty-three lines of fourteen characters each. So uniform are the Chinese characters that some have speculated that a single person carved them all, although the current thinking is that a team of some thirty craftsmen probably did the work. No errors have ever been discovered in the 52,382,960 characters!
The wood for the blocks came from birch, magnolia, and cherry trees from Korea’s south coast. The wood was first soaked in sea water for three years. After the blocks were cut, they were boiled in salt water, then left outside for another three years. Once they were carved, the blocks were covered with a poisonous lacquer to ward off insects, and given metal frames to prevent warping.
They were first stored at a palace, then resided at a couple of different monasteries before being taken in 1399 to Haeinsa, a temple and monastery on the slopes of Mount Gaya near Taegu, where they have remained to the present day. Four buildings, called the Janggyeong Panjeon, were built in the fifteenth century to house the woodblocks. Along with the buildings’ natural ventilation, the foundations are reinforced with charcoal, lime powder, and clay to help control both temperature and humidity. Now almost eight hundred years old, the blocks remain in excellent shape.
The Tripitaka Koreana is the 32nd national treasure of Korea, and the Janggyeong Panjeon is both a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the 52nd national treasure of Korea.
Reading: As always, I have multiple books underway right now. With all the recent furor surrounding the supposed “unmasking” of the formerly pseudonymous Elena Ferrante (here’s a fine summary and commentary by Dayna Tortorici from n+1), I decided it was about time for me to see what all the acclaim her Neapolitan Novels have received is all about. Halfway through the first volume, My Brilliant Friend, I can begin to see why so many readers are enthusiastic. Along with that, I am currently reading A Fearless Heart: How the Courage to Be Compassionate Can Transform Our Lives by Thupten Jinpa (the Dalai Lama’s English translator). To help push me forward in my writing endeavors, I’m also slowly working my way through Julia Cameron’s The Right to Write.
Viewing: There hasn’t been too much film viewing recently. I did finally watch for the second time Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Cemetery of Splendour, and loved it again (as I pretty much always love his films). I’ll be writing about it soon. I also watched The Innocents on Turner Classic Movies last night, and, aside from wondering if Deborah Kerr was quite the right actress to be playing the governess, thought the film was wonderfully dark and atmospheric. Tonight, TCM is showing a couple of the Hammer Studios Frankenstein films, and I’ll probably be there.
Listening: Julia Wolfe’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Anthracite Fields impressed me as much as I’d hoped it would. More to follow in this space soon, probably later this week.
Blogging: Last week was comparatively slow for the blog, although some good stuff got started and is in the pipeline. I did manage to post…
Pondering: I try not to ponder too much. Thinking hurts my brain.
Anticipating: This is the week for the launching of FilmStruck, the new collaborative venture for Turner Classic Movies and the Criterion Collection. With its mix of foreign and independent films, not to mention the Criterion Collection itself, it’s likely I won’t be able to resist subscribing. Impressions will surely follow soon.
Finally, a social group of which I can be a part – the Dull Men’s Club!
Dedicated to pursuits like studying and photographing mailboxes, riding escalators, and collecting items like toothpicks and milk bottles, the Dull Men’s Club – “dull, but not boring,” as one of its members says – is an online community that brings together “dull men, and women who appreciate dull men.”
I can’t help but refer you to the John Cage quote that has appeared on this blog from the beginning, and even provided its name: “If something is boring after two minutes, try it for four. If still boring, then eight. Then sixteen. Then thirty-two. Eventually one discovers that it is not boring at all.”
Enjoy this short documentary on the Dull Men’s Club, Born To Be Mild.