The turning point of Cemetery of Splendour, Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s follow up to Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, arrives one-third of the way in.
The film begins as a fairly rational, if unusually tender depiction of the treatment of a group of soldiers suffering from a mysterious sleeping sickness in a small hospital in Thailand. It’s not mainstream fare to be sure, but it’s also nothing you would lose complete track of if you glanced away for a moment. The change comes after a visit to a cinema, when we’re shown a trailer for a local film filled with sex and snakes and shouting. Our characters emerge, and although nothing seems altered everything is different. We’re suddenly in a world of of psychics and mysterious potions, where goddesses walk among us and unseen battles rage between centuries old spirits.
Not that you’d particularly know from looking. Cemetery of Splendour moves through its 122 minute running time with a glacially calm serenity. Weerasethakul’s long, static shots lull us into our own netherworld between dreaming and reality, and the total lack of accompanying music immerses us in the sounds of the place – the deep breaths of the sleeping soldiers, the crunch of footsteps on dry leaves. The cinematography is rarely anything short of sublime and some shots, like a look down at a network of escalators in a mall or of a homeless man sleeping on the bench at a bus shelter, are the kind that will gently, but insistently, imprint themselves on your subconscious for the foreseeable future.
The film’s central character is Jen, played by regular Weerasethakul muse Jenjira Pongpas, who shows up at the hospital one day and just kind of stays, forming a bond with one particular soldier named Itt (Banlop Lomnoi). Pongpas plays the part with wonderful turns of humour and understatement. Jen is a character to whom we take to almost immediately, whom we trust to lead us anywhere. Her interactions with Itt have the same unhurried depth as the rest of the film, and are made all the sweeter because he is liable to drop off at any point. He chooses to spend his few conscious moments with Jen, teasing her about her husband’s weight and bemoaning his dead-end military career, and we feel an uncommon closeness with these characters as they amble through conversations and share street food at the market. Just as every shot of the rows of sleeping soldiers is a reminder of the mythic battles we’re told are being waged with their energy, so too does the languid back-and-forth of Jen and Itt belie the hidden and tumultuous depths which churn beneath.
The film’s second half concerns the relationship between Jen and Keng (Jarinpattra Rueangram), a young woman who claims the ability to psychically communicate with the sleeping soldiers. The conversation between these two reels back and forth between dreams and reality; between knowing and mystery, until any distinctions are blurred to the point of meaninglessness and there’s nothing to do but revel in the laconic beauty of it all.
There is a strong line of metaphor running through this picture, a commentary upon Thailand’s recent troubled past as well as on deeper issues of national psyche and neuroses. These are aspects upon which I hardly feel qualified to comment, my knowledge of Thai history being somewhat shaky at best. Suffice to say that the film gives a wonderful sense of chaos beneath the surface of the ordinary, and the central metaphor is a potent and layered one. The fact is that Weerasethakul’s ambidextrous talent is such that I never had any sense that the film was lessened by my lack of knowledge.
At its simplest, this is a film about a woman trying to find her place in the world. At its most complex it’s about exactly the same thing; it’s a film which realises its actuality with such sumptuous feeling that every layer is like a hidden depth. Leaving the cinema is like waking up from a particularly wonderful dream: everything seems, happily, a little stranger, and there’s a part of you that just wishes you could sleep forever.