Cemetery of Splendour (2015)

Apichatpong Weerasethakul | 2hr 2min

In a former elementary school somewhere in Thailand, a temporary clinic has been set up to manage the overflow of comatose soldiers from a nearby hospital. A mysterious “sleeping sickness” has been taking over military units, and the only way nurses have been able to treat them is by soothing their dreams through light machines, each one standing tall above the beds like over-sized, neon canes. Outside, palm trees and bamboo try to peek through the upper-storey windows into these classrooms, but every night the shutters are closed to cut out any natural light, letting the artificial glow of red, green, blue, and pink hues softly bathe the room. As the machines rotate through colours in this otherwise pitch-black space, Apichatpong Weerasethakul invokes a hallucinatory dreamscape of hypnotic effervescence, described by one character as looking “like funeral lights”, though often feeling more like ethereal representations of human souls, constantly shifting in cyclical patterns as if they were alive.

For all the beauty of these psychedelic sequences, and as unique a cinematic artist as Weerasethakul is, Cemetery of Splendour does not go down as one of his finest works. The extended middle sequence which sees those neon colours reach out into public spaces like some spiritual infection and which lets the camera gaze down several storeys of intersecting escalators as if descending to hell stands out as a highlight, but elsewhere there is little that matches the delirious jungle madness of Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives or the masterfully mirrored structure of Syndromes and a Century. For the most part, Weerasethakul largely commits to long, static takes of tropical nature reserves and rural interiors – a formally consistent choice, effectively infusing a quiet stillness into Weerasethakul’s tableaux, if not particularly exciting.

The greater intrigue here lies in the quiet air of mystery that envelops this clinic and the surrounding forest in a dreamy shroud, blending sleeping and waking life to the point that they are not just indistinguishable, but virtually the same. Jen is the clinic volunteer who we quickly latch onto and follow through these obscure states, as she develops a particular attachment to one specific patient, Itt, who is among the many soldiers that have fallen into a coma. Their relationship is initially one-sided with her being the only one between them talking, but then Itt begins to talk back. Soon, they are going out for lunches and dinners together, and as he learns about her family and cultural background, she learns about what lies on the other side of unconsciousness.

As we discover, the answer has been foreshadowed all along by the motif of the digger outside the clinic excavating earth. Beneath the surface are the graves of ancient villagers and soldiers, buried on the site of a once-great palace where a king was defeated in battle. Now, he is using the spirits of modern-day soldiers to fight his battles in the afterlife, enlisting them against their will while they helplessly slumber. They are never expected to recover from this haunting illness that has forced them to serve a monarchy they don’t believe in, but the closest they might come to regaining consciousness is this in-between state that Itt exists in with Jen, seeing both the modern buildings and jungle which conceals the land’s history, and the kingdom which once dominated the landscape.

Weerasethakul is no stranger to mystical stories that ponder processes of healing, reincarnation, and dreams, but in the allegory at the heart of Cemetery of Splendour he also evokes his common themes from an unusually political angle. This kingly command over dormant soldiers echoes the anti-defamation laws protecting Thailand’s monarchy, subjugating and forcing its people to lend their arms to a ruling power that no longer holds any relevancy. Their sleep is a disturbed one, trapping them in an afterlife that blocks the natural cycle of reincarnation from taking place.

As Jen wanders a park of concrete Buddhist sculptures and wooden gazebos, Itt points out the features of the palace that once stood, seeing through time via the supernatural sickness that has taken over his body. Perhaps whoever is operating the excavators outside the clinic is similarly trying to gain a better understanding of the past by exhuming its artefacts, or maybe they are digging even more graves for those casualties of a cruel, careless government. Either way for Weerasethakul, the pits they create are symbols of death and permanent stasis, trapping the minds of the Thai people in a half-conscious state that keeps them powerless against the abuses of human rights visited upon them.

Cemetery of Splendour is currently streaming on SBS On Demand.

The Witch (2015)

Robert Eggers | 1hr 32min

There have been countless artistic depictions of 17th century Colonial America when religious superstition supplanted rationalism in Puritan culture, though the pure dread which seeps through The Witch’s gradual disintegration into madness manifests as something tangibly Satanic. While mistrust and self-preservation ultimately bring about the downfall of this exiled pilgrim family, there is also no doubt that there is something beyond their understanding that is staging paranormal acts of terror, intending to incite sinful actions. Among barren New England landscapes of withering trees and crude wooden shacks, Robert Eggers unfolds this folktale of horrific misfortune, blending occult mythology with eerily authentic renderings of the era.

In later films, Eggers would craft legends around demented lighthouse keepers and vengeful Vikings, curating intensely acute ventures into history with period-specific vernacular and authentic production design. To say that each progressive movie is bigger and madder than the last should not suggest any lack of ambition in The Witch, but rather that you can see the marks of a first-time filmmaker working out his artistic voice. His experience in production design is especially evident in the distressed fabric of Puritan costumes and the small family homestead, where slanted ceilings trap characters in claustrophobic, off-kilter compositions.

Slanted ceilings closing in on claustrophobic compositions.

With extensive research backing up his screenplay and visual design, Eggers also instils a strangely antiquated sort of realism into The Witch. It is there in the poetic Early Modern English dialogue, but also in the curses brought upon this rural family, from the ruined crops to the blood in the goat’s udder. Particularly impressive is how much Eggers integrates his mind for tactile detail into his direction on a holistic level – the soft lighting of rustic interiors through candles, the desaturated colours of bleak, natural scenery, and even the slow, barely perceptible dollying in on shots that seem to conceal some deeper horror beneath the surface.

Such painstaking detail in Eggers’ production design, building this 17th century New England homestead with great authenticity.

Mark Korven accompanies the terror and drama of The Witch with an ethereal vocal score, wavering in high-pitched discordant harmonies as if to represent the monster at the heart of the film on some aural, unseen level. We are often kept at a foreboding distance from its true visage, though Eggers doesn’t keep us waiting to confirm its presence in this narrative. Ten minutes into the film, right after baby Samuel is stolen, he carries out an eerie montage revealing it as a pale, naked creature participating in some kind of ritual sacrifice.

This isn’t a sprawling film, but it is worth savouring its bleak, desaturated landscapes, isolating this family on a barren rural farm.

Eggers manifests supernatural malevolence quite literally in The Witch, and yet at the same time it appears to represent something inherent in our characters’ sinful humanity. Suspicion within this Puritan family slowly turns into vengeful wrath, so much so that at a certain point one must draw comparisons to Arthur Miller’s 1953 play The Crucible as a key influence, which turned accusations of witchcraft from this era of American history into an allegory for the Red Scare. Mass hysteria effectively turns innocents against each other in both pieces of fiction, distracting them from the greater threats to the foundational liberty upon which this young nation is being built.

Thick darkness smothering pale, illuminated figures, making for powerful imagery.

The entire family here is well-drawn in their characterisations, but it is Thomasin, the daughter played by Anya Taylor-Joy, who is especially fascinating in the way she straddles sin and virtue, placing her at the centre of their accusations. She has the greatest motive to bring them down, as she overhears her parents’ plans to send her away, though we also see the ways in which she too is targeted by forces beyond her understanding.

Such gripping dramatic tension in The Witch does well to sustain its underlying horror throughout, as the unseen evil maliciously targets the weaknesses of individuals to bring them down as a whole unit. Along with these characters to whom we have attached our own sanity, we too are grinded down to the point of submission, unable to apply full reason to the situation. At the end of that path though, once the rigid constraints of Puritan culture have been diminished, there is ironically a new liberty to be found – a liberty which moves beyond the bonds of colonial America, and which can finally revel in the release of morbid chaos.

A haunting, macabre ending, featuring what might be becoming a trademark shot for Eggers – the silhouette in front of a ritualistic bonfire.

The Witch is currently streaming on Amazon Prime Video, and is available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, and Google Play.

Mountains May Depart (2015)

Jia Zhangke | 2hr 6min

Having spent much of his career progressively inching further away from his neorealist roots, Mountains May Depart marks Jia Zhangke’s most significant withdrawal from that distinctive, authentic style, and is slightly more disappointing for it. The emotions are bigger and broader here, as he plays more into the conventional melodrama of his characters’ relationships than the quiet beats of disaffection, which he has always wielded such brilliant control over. Rather than sitting back at a distance where we can appreciate the sensitive ambiguity of their exchanges, Jia’s camera narrows further in on their faces than it ever has before, taking a certain edge off his otherwise remarkable use of traditional and modern architecture to define their connections and identities.
 
Still, this is not bad drama by any means, and it isn’t like he is abandoning all visual style entirely. Jia finds the time now and again to return to a long shot of a beautiful, towering pagoda, rising up in the background behind the characters, reminding us of the history that continues to hang over their lives. And when it comes to narrative structure, the framing of Mountains May Depart across three separate time periods may not carry the heavy, epic weight of his earlier film, Platform, but it at least efficiently illustrates the accelerating speed with which Chinese culture is evolving.

Great use of location shooting, as well as shifting aspect ratios to denote different time periods.

On the eve of the new millennium in 1999, we meet Tao, a young shopkeeper caught in a love-triangle that sees her wind up with her more attractive but arrogant suitor. Later, she gives birth to a baby boy, Daole, and divorces her husband. In 2014, she reaches out to her estranged 7-year-old son, and even at this early point in his life she poignantly recognises the cultural distance between their generations. In the final act, set in 2026, we begin to follow Daole as a young man who has moved to Australia and adopted the moniker “Dollar”, effectively cementing his identity within a westernised culture. The only links back to his heritage are through his troubled relationship with his father, who he doesn’t even share a common language with, and his Chinese language teacher. The promise of globalisation to bring the people together is exposed as a lie, as this small family which once held so much hope for the future has been fractured in every sense. Dollar has not seen his mother since he was a childhood, but Jia sparks some hope for their relationship in the final moments, as the young immigrant finally considers reconnecting with her.

As much as this final act works to tie off Jia’s point about China’s modernist progress isolating its own citizens, it is also here where he loses sight of the film’s formal strength. With Tao almost completely dropping out of the narrative, and a jarringly inauthentic vision of a futuristic society, the last forty minutes of the film feels oddly out of place with the rest of the film.

A story spanning generations and underscoring the gaps between them. There is real tenderness at its heart even if the film falters in the final act.

That is, until the largely silent epilogue, when Jia returns to a lonely, middle-aged Tao, back in China. We watch as she walks outside her home into the thick snow laying over the village, pauses, and begins to dance. As suggested by the musical bookends of The Pet Shop Boys’ song “Go West”, the westernised culture that her nation has adopted still isn’t going anywhere. But at the same time, neither is that gorgeous, monumental pagoda, rising up out of the landscape like a shrine to China’s past.

Gorgeous formal ambition in the use of the Chinese pagoda, a towering symbol of Chinese tradition even as time wears on.

Mountains May Depart is not currently available to stream in Australia.

Son of Saul (2015)

László Nemes | 1hr 47min

In creating a cinematic interpretation of the Holocaust, the temptation to play into its widespread, visceral horror is right there, and certainly many films have taken that approach before. But what if a film were to take a far more subjective, personal aesthetic than any others before, and reject any notion of confronting its chilling, traumatic imagery head-on? What if we weren’t just limited to a single perspective for the entire run time, but rather confined to a wilfully incomplete picture of one small corner of history? László Nemes fully recognises the challenge he is posing himself in taking this approach throughout Son of Saul, and yet it is exactly this dogmatic dedication to a single point-of-view through unending close-ups which offers such tragic nuance to his story, keeping us firmly in the mind of one Jewish-Hungarian concentration camp prisoner.

A brilliantly effective setup for Nemes’ insistence on close-ups in this first shot, as Saul walks straight up into the focus of the camera.

Saul Ausländer’s role in the Sonderkommando unit of Auschwitz sees him put to work in salvaging valuables from the dead bodies of those who perished in gas chambers, and although the length of time he has spent fulfilling this job remains unclear, it has at least been long enough for him to grow numb to his surroundings. The opening shot of a blurry natural environment does little to clue us in on the setting, though when Saul approaches the camera from the background and finally arrives in close-up in razor-sharp focus, we latch right onto him as our primary vessel through which we can understand this world.

From this point on, Nemes’ long tracking shots rarely deviate from keeping Saul’s face and head as our centre of attention as he traverses the camp’s chambers, courtyards, and forests, always keeping this world of gut-wrenching horror and devastation just barely out of sight, whether through the camera’s shallow focus or crowded obstructions within the frame. Though it carries a similar subjective lens as a first-person perspective film like Enter the Void, the emphasis on Saul’s face accomplishes almost the exact opposite in directing our attention inwards on the eye of the hurricane that is his fragile psychological state.

Whenever the camera lets it focus extend into the background, the frame will always be restricted in some way, whether it is through the blocking of bodies or the claustrophobic mise-en-scène.

The thin barrier which Saul builds between reality and perception may be enough to block out the naked corpses and brutal murders that surround him, but the haunting whispers, guttural screams, retching, crying, and clanging of machinery continue to fill the air in a grotesquely detailed sound design, threatening to shatter that bubble of ignorance. Nemes’ decision to paint only a partial picture of this space is even more terrifying than a full-bodied rendering, as through this aural ambience he instead feeds our senses just enough information for us to fill in the gaps with our own notions of unlimited, unknown horror.

As for the pieces of this environment that we are allowed to lay eyes upon, we find nothing less than some of the most powerfully composed close-up shots of the decade, often with faces gathered together in this tight aspect ratio and lit with soft, dim natural light. With such an emphasis on facial expressions, there is much that rests on the subtleties of Géza Röhrig’s largely internal performance, which often conceals incredible anguish, terror, and frustration beneath a veneer of superficial control. On his back is an X designating him as a Sonderkommando worker, though it also marks him as target within his own narrative, unable to escape these cramped, enclosed quarters or his pending doom.

We often hang right behind Saul, the red X on his back standing out in this otherwise dreary brown environment.
The lighting and blocking of these faces is masterful.

Nevertheless, there is a fighting spirit inside him that he hangs onto in desperation, and which motivates his actions along two minimalistic plot threads running parallel to each other over the day and a half that this narrative unfolds over. Within such a contained span of time, Nemes maintains a rigid focus on the urgency of Saul’s immediate goals from scene-to-scene, particularly as they pertain to his hope of reclaiming some shred of dignity in the face of complete subservience to the SS-guards.

Along one strand we follow his cooperation with a group of rebellious prisoners planning an uprising, and the part he plays in smuggling resources between units as an act of defiance. While this covert, subversive effort feeds his desire for justice, his attempts at nourishing his suffering faith drives a more personal storyline regarding the burial of a young boy. He clings to the child’s body as if it were his last chance at salvation, and although he claims it is his own son, we learn from other men that this is not the case. It is in this self-deception that he scrounges for remnants of his Jewish culture and religion that have been decimated by the Nazi regime, and through which he strives to deliver a proper send-off with all the proper religious rites. In trying to attach his own identity to that of this boy’s he is almost pre-empting his own demise, and attempting to fulfil one final wish to put his own life and legacy to rest in accordance with his own religious faith.

Once again, the horrors of the camp are peeking through the obstructions of bodies and set dressing. We never get a good enough look to see what’s going on, but the terror is evident.

The place where Son of Saul ends up strikes a resounding note of tragic loss, and yet in suddenly breaking from its form with a sudden shift of perspective there is a lingering note of hope, as if a small piece of Saul’s spirit has continued to live on. Of course, the fact that this step into a world beyond his immediate point-of-view hits with such force is all down to Nemes’ rigid, consistent application of his own principled style up to this point, as he effectively narrows the scope of his story to a single, harrowing experience of an otherwise monumental blight on human history, and in doing so delivers one of the most traumatic depictions of war committed to film.

The first time we see Saul smile, a piece of his soul going out into the world with this child.

Son of Saul is available to stream on SBS On Demand, and available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, and Google Play.