Despite a Palme d’Or win and despite the fact that he’s one of the better-known proponents of Slow Cinema, Apichatpong Weerasethakul is a director I’ve only become familiar with since I started blogging, so I guess the release of his fêted latest film Cemetery Of Splendour is a good point to start what will probably be an aptly-slow exploration of his career to date. It’s set in and around a makeshift Thai hospital – until recently used as a school, though the full extent of the site’s history becomes apparent later on – and in one ward we find that a group of soldiers who were tasked with clearing the site are collectively suffering from a bout of narcolepsy. No-one seems to be able to explain why the condition is affecting these men, and the doctors at the hospital are open to alternative healing methods, embracing coloured light therapy in particular. Jenjira Pongpas plays Jenjira, a woman who volunteers as a nurse/carer in the hospital, and the character takes a shine to one soldier in particular, named Itt (Banlop Lomnoi), who subsequently wakes for brief periods under her watch. Also working on the ward is Keng (Jarinpattra Rueangram), a young medium who uses supposed psychic powers to help loved ones communicate with the soldiers, and given that she does this for no obvious remuneration (and has turned down the opportunity to work for the FBI), the implication is that her skills are genuine rather than an attempt to hoodwink and profit from the desperation of others. It’s revealed that the hospital now stands on a site that was once a king’s palace, and what transpires is a strange scenario that could perhaps be termed ‘fantasy’, but I’m loathe to use the phrase given that it has a loaded meaning in relation to cinema and culture more generally, and the fact is Apichatpong – ‘Joe’ to his legion of fans – determinedly keeps his film grounded in reality with scenes that depict characters undertaking routine activities, such as exercise by the river or the simple act of eating lunch and dinner. Perhaps a term such as ‘mythology bleeding into modernity’ would be more accurate: the ‘ghosts’ or ‘past lives’ of previous residents of the site are discussed more and more and even begin to appear to Jenjira, though when they do they’re dressed in modern clothes and have modern haircuts.
The plot is actually fairly clear and concise up to a point, though I’m presuming it shouldn’t be taken on face value and it’s certainly possible to read the film as if the soldiers, or perhaps even other characters, are actually in some kind of purgatory. There is repeated talk of a hidden world under our own, in particular when Keng (channeling the dreaming Itt) walks around a sculpture park with an enraptured Jenjira, describing the rooms that once stood where the characters in question stand today. There are plenty of symbols and metaphors that fit with such a subtext – next to the hospital a digger ploughs into and churns the land, for example, although for much of the film it isn’t operated – but I couldn’t quite figure out whether Apichatpong is arguing for or against raking through (or disturbing) the past, and I was left none the wise by the film’s enigmatic final sequence. Supposedly there’s some criticism of contemporary Thai politics in the film, too, though I have to admit that beyond the unrest in recent years it’s not a subject I know much about, so I’m afraid it was all lost on me. So I guess it’s a difficult film to pin down, which is critical shorthand for saying ‘I only understood some of it’; it’s quiet, very slow and duly filled with long takes, yet suddenly out of nowhere Apichatpong finds the extraordinary in the ordinary, be it the hypnotically-whirring fans and water wheels that repeatedly appear or the brightly-lit montage of street scenes that match the changing colours of the therapeutic light sticks used on the hospital ward. Cemetery Of Splendour is a relaxing watch, and it reminds me of that brief, strange state we sometimes experience when we’re no longer dreaming but haven’t quite woken up, and the difference between what is real/what is not real is not immediately obvious. It’s a shame, though, to not fully understand the underlying message.
Directed by: Apichatpong Weerasethakul.
Written by: Apichatpong Weerasethakul.
Starring: Jenjira Pongpas, Banlop Lomnoi, Jarinpattra Rueangram, Petcharat Chaiburi.
Cinematography: Diego García.
Editing: Lee Chatametikool.
Running Time: 120 minutes.