Cemetery of Splendour
Directed by: Apichatpong Weerasethakul
Written by: Apichatpong Weerasethakul.
Starring: Jenjira Pongpas (Jenjira), Banlop Lomnoi (Itt), Jarinpattra Rueangram (Keng), Petcharat Chaiburi (Nurse Tet), Tawatchai Buawat (The Mediator), Sujittraporn Wongsrikeaw (Goddess 1), Bhattaratorn Senkraigul (Goddess 2), Sakda Kaewbuadee (Teng), Richard Abramson (Richard Widner).
About half way into Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Cemetery of Splendour, Jenjira (Jenjira Pongpas) is praying at a shrine, giving offerings of small, carved animals to a pair of goddess, and explaining what they are for to her American husband, Richard. One is for her leg – she has one that is significantly shorter than the other, and she needs to walk with braces. One is for his hand. And the other is for their “new son” – Itt (Jarinpattra Rueangram), a soldier in a deep sleep at the former school transformed into a hospital Jenjira volunteers at. “We have a new son?” Richard asks, amused. “Yes, he was a soldier. You’re a foreigner, you wouldn’t understand”, she informs him. He insists that he does – but I’m not sure he really does.
I highlight this exchange, because I think to a certain extent, it describes the movie as well. Whenever I watch one of Weerasethakul’s film, I am always aware there is a level of political allegory going on beneath the surface of the film that I never fully understand. Weerasethakul is a Thai filmmaker, and even if his movies don’t make a ton of money at home, he is making them for a Thai audience, who is going to understand them in a different way than I, as an outsider, will. And yet, it is because Weerasethakul’s films are so specific that the emotions they conjure up are universal. When a film tries to dodge the specifics – like say, Beasts of No Nation, which took place in an unnamed African country, and danced around the root of the conflict – it starts to feel at least slightly false. I may not understand the exact political climate in Thailand that Weerasethakul is commenting on in his films – but on a more human level, the films work.
As with Weerasethakul’s other films, the past haunts the present in Cemetery of Splendour. The main story takes place at a rural school that has been transformed into a hospital. An old classroom, has been turned into a warding for the sleeping soldiers, whose families loyally visit them, although they mostly remain unconscious. What caused the soldiers to fall asleep in the first place is never explained, although it explained that the school was built on the “Cemetery of Kings”, and these long dead man are using the unconscious men to continue to fight their war for them, sapping their energy, and keeping them that way. Each man is hooked up to a glowing machine – the Americans apparently used these in Afghanistan as well – that is supposed to regulate their dreams. It is here where Jenjira meets Itt – he has no family to visit him, so she is the one who keeps vigil. Occasionally, Itt wakes up, and he and Jenjira hit the town – they go out for noodles, or to the movies. But he could fall asleep again at any minute. There is a physic, Keng (Jarinpattra Rueangram), a young woman who can communicate with the dead – or in this case, the unconscious. The most memorable sequence of the movie is when Keng and Jenjira walk around the grounds outside of the hospital. Keng has been taken over by Itt for this sequence, and he/she describes the ornate palace of the King that he sees, as Jenjira (and us, in the audience), she the normal forest all around us.
Weerasethakul is a very deliberate filmmaker – which is a nice way of saying that his films are often slow. Even compared to the likes of Syndromes and a Century and Uncle Boonme Who Can Recall His Past Lives, Cemetery of Splendour is languidly paced. Those two films have a lot in common with this one – Syndromes was also set at a hospital, and Weerasethakul repeats some of the imagery of that film (although not the literal inner workings of the hospital building he had there). I think near the end, Weerasethakul is even playing with the audience a little – making us think he’s going to end the film the way he did that time – before circling around and ending the film with a rare close-up – which is all the more stunning because it is so rare. With Uncle Boonme, it shares the matter of fact presentation of the supernatural – ghosts are taken as a given in these films, not horror movie stuff, but something more quiet and powerful.
Weerasethakul is a one of a kind filmmaker – marching to the beat of his own drummer. His camera rarely moves, and he prefers long takes – sometimes they stretch on for minutes on end. His films also defy easy interpretation. He doesn’t do the work for the audience – but he allows them to figure it all out for themselves. Some of Cemetery of Splendour baffles me, some of it delights me, some of it haunts me, and yes, some of it bores me. I think it’s fair to say that Cemetery of Splendour is a more interesting film to write and talk about than it is to actually watch. It certainly is a film that I’m glad I saw, and will not soon forget – even if it doesn’t quite reach the heights of some of Weerasethakul’s previous films.