Genre: Drama, Fantasy
Directed by: Apichatpong Weerasethakul
Starring: Jenjira Pongpas, Banlop Lomnoi, Jarinpattra Rueangram
The odd thing about Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s work is that he’s predictable in a wonderfully unpredictable manner. He’s great at walking the line between mundane and fantastical, often merging the two into drawn out and affecting lunacy. Bawdy gags are just as likely to feature alongside carefully sculpted images; grand statements are mixed in with the intensely personal. The end result is a confusing and captivating mix. Cemetery of Splendour, the first feature released since 2010’s Palme d’Or winning Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, feels a step or two off the pace compared to his best work, but that doesn’t mean there’s not a lot to enjoy.
Right from the start it’s best to avoid trying to figure out what’s going on. That’s not to say Weerasethakul, known affectionately as Joe, has made everything deliberately complex. It’s more that his style doesn’t give itself to pithy summary. Set in the Isan region of Thailand, Cemetery of Splendour focusses on a converted hospital full of unconscious soldiers. While working on a nearby dig site, they’ve succumbed to a mysterious sleeping sickness. A number of volunteers tend to the soldiers with the focus on Jenjira (Jenjira Pongpas). She has an American husband she met online, a disability leaving one leg shorter than the other, and a fondness for a particular sleeping solider, Itt (Banlop Lomnoi).From here Weerasethakul explores down multiple routes, often simultaneously. The sleeping soldiers could represent the paralysis creeping into the Thai government, while one reason thrown out for their affliction, that they’ve been digging atop an ancient battle ground and the spirits from that time are siphoning the energy to continue the war, looks back to the past and the way it conflicts with the present. That’s just two elements in a thematically rich work taking in scenes of surprising eroticism, musings on other cultures, and the way in which modern life is connected to our spiritual past. The latter surfaces frequently, especially when an ancient figurine comes to life.
For all the tendrils snaking through the subtext, Cemetery of Splendour lacks the vibrancy of Weerasethakul’s best work. The narrative is actually remarkably straight forward by his usual standards, avoiding the sudden stops and directional changes marking previous efforts. While it’s as visually controlled as ever, some of the shots are overly packed, diluting the impact. That’s not to say there aren’t moments of visual wonder. Neon mood lighting is placed next to stricken soldiers in the hope it might alleviate their symptoms. This provides ample opportunity to revel in an almost sci-fi array of pinks, blues and greens. The contrast with many lush outdoor shots is stark. As pretty as this often is, the still camera and sheer length of many shots sometimes works against the film, slowing things down so much it moves from hypnotic to a little dull.
There’s still time for erection related sight gags, strange woodland behaviour, and a fascinating relationship between Jenjira and her soldier, but Weerasethakul tips his hand a little too much. In the past he’s proved the master at making the spiritual mundane and the mundane spiritual, creating something magical in the process. The magic is there even as the balance shifts too close to the mundane side of the spectrum. Regardless, he remains a voice worthy of attention.