Cemetery of Splendor Dir. Apichatpong Weerasethakul

[Strand Releasing; 2015]

Styles: magical realism
Others: Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives

It is such a precise and satisfying treat to watch one of Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s films in the height of Oscar season. While what purports to be only the whitest, fattest, richest cream floats to the top of the milky Oscar film queue, and a homogenized set of traits solidify as what qualified those lucky top rankers, a set of other riches brew and ferment in stranger pastures, taking a bit of work to get into and most certainly a different stomach enzyme to digest. Weerasethakul’s films are in those pastures. Their concerns are simply not the same, their sense of drama and narrative and character unbeholden to American movie genres. All this in no way means Cemetery of Splendor, the latest film directed and written by Weerasethakul, is purposefully inscrutable or esoteric — far from it. It just doesn’t seek to be understood, only to be sincere in its presentation of a reality that, for the audience, is never reliably such. Learning that is one of its most compelling points.

Cemetery of Splendor is Weerasethakul’s eighth feature film, set in Khon Kaen, his hometown village in northeast Thailand. Our protagonist, if she would ever allow us to call her that, is Jenjira (or Jen as she’s called, played by Jenjira Pongpas), a middle-aged woman with a severely bummed leg who has volunteered to care for the bedridden soldiers at a makeshift hospital, hobbled together inside an old school. We learn that these soldiers are here because there are too many already at the “real” hospital, and they all suffer from the same sickness — they sleep, perpetually, deeply, interrupted only by the occasional nightmare. Besides the nurses and doctors, the hospital has a few other benevolent presences — an occasional herd of chicks that follow their mother past the hospital’s thresholds, and a young psychic woman (played by Jarinpattra Rueangram), who is entrusted with contacting the wandering spirits of the sleeping soldiers to relay messages from loved ones. Despite the slightly ominous mystery of the sleeping sickness, the film proceeds patiently and without obvious conflict. There are mostly long, still, eye-level shots of Jen’s interactions at the hospital and with staff, never approaching close-ups of the characters or soundtracks (conventions of the film that persists nearly to the very end), deftly exhibiting the seamless and unremarkable transitions between quotidian medical concerns and mystical or paranormal routines.

Added to the list of benevolent (albeit supremely alien) presences in the hospital are a new set of machines, one for each sleeping soldier, that stand guard as an allen-wrench shaped beam of light at their bedside. The doctor says the machines will help with the nightmares — they’re the same ones used by American soldiers in Afghanistan — but no mention is made of what they actually do. Time passes, in the purgatorial and slow-moving hospital world, until a soldier (played by Banlop Lomnoi) awakens under Jen’s watch. Jen learns a theory behind the soldier’s sleeping sickness: the hospital is built on palace ruins, and kings of past worlds are using the soldier’s spirits to fight their ongoing battles. An exchange slowly begins developing between Jen and this soldier, even as he still falls asleep with no warning. They eat together, go to markets, see films, and altogether seem to flatten their various realities together into a shared atmosphere, that of the soldier’s sleep-state, Jen’s prior years spent before she cared for the soldier, and the lives of others lost between the both of them before. Or maybe they’re just becoming friends — Weerasethakul’s style has a way of making things seem more mystical than they may actually need to be, for plot or audience engagement. This talent is used to a fantastic end later on, when Jen encounters an outdoor seminar with a TV personality hawking skin cream. The developing relationships between Jen, the soldier and the psychic girl populate the meat of the film with a sense of unease, as the world around them shows flickers of a haunting, whether in the soldier’s disembodied memories, the psychic’s vision of her prior life as Jen’s dead son, or Jen’s visit by two goddesses as she sits eating longkong.

The unease of Cemetery of Splendor is not a dictated feeling, but instead something that comes naturally in the absence of a clearly knitted narrative, where the audience is presented with astounding imagery but not obvious dramatic direction. Weerasethakul has been known to relish this absence, much more explicitly in the jumpiness of previous films such as 2010’s Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, but not because it sets out to perplex or misguide the audience purposefully, but just to say, I’ll leave this here and see what comes of it. Without cozying too much into the tropes of magical realism, there’s much in Weerasethakul’s films that present strangeness without labeling it as distinct from normal, or explaining it through a convenient attached allegory. We see a boy shitting in the jungle, strangers sitting in a park rearranging themselves without provocation, an amoeba moving across a stunning sky. Considering the fact that a military junta has ruled Thailand since 2014, following a modern history of frequent insurrection and military rule, the soldiers in their suspended reality of slumber, perhaps enslaved by violent ghost-kings, become extra loaded if not outright critical. Should anything in Weerasethakul’s films be perceived as critical of the Thai regime, he knows, they would be censored in Thailand, and he has spoken out before to say that if that were the case, he’d rather they not be shown at all.

What we get at the end of Cemetery of Splendor is an unclear catharsis: a confused climax that, if it actually happened, still might not have included the right cast of characters or occurred in the right reality to bring any sense of closure to Jen, the soldier, the psychic, or any past lives they may have inhabited. The soldiers are not cured nor improving; the shifting colors of their lights the only cue that time is actually passing within the hospital, thick like molasses exhausted by tropical heat. Perhaps the audience, if they like, can add and subtract the different realities and past lives as needed, to sum up a satisfying resolution. Or they can grin and sob with the characters themselves, with no presumption that this will end, only transform into another life.

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