Director: Apichatpong Weerasethakul
Stars: Jenjira Pongpas Widner, Banlop Lomnoi, Jarinpattra Rueangram
“Are you stressed out?” a doctor asks a patient in a makeshift consultation room early on in the new film from Apichatpong Weerasethakul. To this Western viewer the very idea of this question appearing in the director’s work is comical, for the Thai master has a reputation for the incredible calm of his cinema.
His last feature-length film, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives was justly celebrated at Cannes in 2010, making the wait for the follow-up to such success seem extra long. Cemetery Of Splendour reveals that (relatively) increased notoriety has done little to change the processes by which Weerasethakul works, which is rather good news for all concerned.
As with his last, convalescence and past lives play heavy roles in Cemetery Of Splendour. Jen (Jenjira Pongpas Widner) is an aging woman with one leg 10cm shorter than the other, who is visiting her old school, recently remodeled as a hospital treating a group of soldiers who are plagued by a constant need to sleep. They lie passively in rows of beds beside looming tubes of florescent light which run slowly through the colours of the rainbow. Jen becomes patron to one patient, Itt (Banlop Lomnoi), whom she comes to think of as her “new son”. During her stay she also becomes fascinated by a young woman named Keng (Jarinpattra Rueangram) who has an uncanny clairvoyance and seems able to communicate with the sleeping soldiers.
As is perhaps to be expected from Weerasethakul, this summation is both everything and nothing. Events unfurl at a tremendously unhurried pace. There is no score to speak of, rather we are bathed in the ambient sounds of this retreat, which comes to feel like a small oasis in the bustling world frequently spied at the edges of the frame. Comparatively, Cemetery Of Splendour is a more cosmopolitan film than it’s predecessor, yet the same aura of hazy timelessness persists. Weerasethakul invites a feeling of dozing in his audience, which is not to say that the film is dull or boring (two of the laziest words a critic can use), rather that the film is uncommonly tranquil. It’s meditative.
The touches of surrealism that dapple the film buoy it with whimsical charm, but these are not life rafts with which to survive its course. Cemetery has its own subtle treasures which appease along the way. There is a recurring sense of spaces serving multiple functions at once. The school may have been converted to a hospital, but lessons still take place there among the occupied beds; an incongruous collision of usage which suggests a strange overlap of realities. This sensation is elaborated on greatly toward the end of the film when Keng (possessed by the spirit of Itt) takes Jen on a journey through a long-destroyed temple on the very same grounds. We see the present day situation, but the characters wander invisible throne rooms and gardens in an extended tour of the imagination.
Gentle as this may all sound, Weerasethakul still has a mild, rascal-like quality to his sense of humour and Cemetery manages to tickle, nay provoke, on more than one occasion whether it intends to or not. Few other directors, for example, could cut to a man taking a shit in the woods and not find themselves vilified for jarring the tone.
Here, however, the instinct to act with disgust is strangely diluted as one senses no attempt being made to purposefully shock or alternatively placate a Western audience. This is deeply personal cinema rooted in another culture. More pointedly comical is a scene later on in which a sensitive discussion about spirituality at a soldier’s bedside is interrupted by the rise of his erection in the blankets covering him. As with everything else here, Weerasethakul is keen to strip away notions of seriousness, perhaps as a concerted effort to balance the potentially dour nature of his subject matter, which leans heavily on sickness and mortality, with lighter fare.
At it’s finest, however, Cemetery is a purely sensual experience. As night falls and the luminous tubes beside the sleeping soldiers are turned on, we cut to scenes across the city which are slowly saturated with the same undulating rainbow colours. It’s as if the sleeping men’s dreams are becoming an infection seeping into the busy world around them, tainting the very atmosphere. Here the film pauses to exist simply in moments of visual playfulness; a sequence which ends on a framed series of escalators cutting up the image like strips of film themselves.
At a full two hours, some might find the meandering, episodic nature of Weerasethakul’s structuring here lacking, but then preconceptions of what a film ‘should’ be are best left at the door on this one. There is little in the way of narrative propulsion, yet by the end we feel that Jen at least has been transformed by her experiences with Itt and Keng. A curve of progression can be mapped. More vitally however is the sense that, in keeping with his previous work, Cemetery Of Splendour is a microclimate all of its own. You don’t watch it; you experience it. Whether it will register as such an exotic and mystical experience as Uncle Boonmee, though, is very much up for debate.