Cemetery of Splendour (2015) ☆☆☆(3/4): Baffling but intriguing

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Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s “Cemetery of Splendour” alternatively baffled and intrigued me. Just like his previous film “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives” (2010), the movie intentionally blurs the line between reality and fantasy in its own idiosyncratic way, so I found myself scratching my head from time to time, but I admired its outcomes as gradually discerning what it attempts to do under its seemingly dry realistic atmosphere mixed with local cultural elements.

During its first 40 minutes, the movie lets us slowly immersed in the main background of its story. At first, we see a bunch of unconscious guys in a temporary clinic which was previously an elementary school, and we come to gather that they are soldiers who have been under the influence of some mysterious sleeping sickness. While they mostly look all right on the surface, they have been stuck in their comatose status without any sign of recovery, and all those doctors and nurses at the clinic can do for them is making their environment as comfortable as possible.

One of the nurses is a woman named Jenjira (Jenjira Pongpas), and we observe small and big things around her as she takes care of the soldiers at the clinic day by day. At one point, we see a young female medium using her psychic powers to help visitors communicate with the soldiers, and then we watch a bunch of special electric equipments being installed around the soldiers for making their comatose status more relaxing.

Leisurely moving from one episodic moment to another, the movie surely demands some patience from us, but it keeps engaging us nonetheless as occasionally showing some sense of humor. There is a brief naughty moment where the camera phlegmatically observes a certain unpleasant physiological activity from the distance, and you may be tickled a bit whenever the movie shows a hen and her bunch of chicks sauntering around the clinic.

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And then something strange happens to Jenjira on one day. When she is handling one of the soldiers on one day, he somehow regains his consciousness and then begins to talk to her. His name is Itt (Banlop Lomnoi), and he and Jenjira soon come to sense something clicking between them, but, unfortunately, he is still not totally free from that sleeping sickness, and that makes Jenjira care more about him than before, as reflected by the scene where she sincerely prays at the shrine located around a nearby lake.

After that scene, there comes another odd moment which may catch you off guard. As the camera statically watches Jenjira spending some time alone not long after praying at the shrine, a pair of fair young ladies suddenly enter the screen, and the mood becomes quite surrealistic as they casually reveal to Jenjira their true identity, which, to our amusement, does not surprise Jenjira much probably because of her cultural background.

Anyway, these two ladies tell Jenjira that there is a certain mythic ancient site right beneath the clinic, and it looks like whatever has been happening on the other side is connected with the soldiers’ sleeping sickness. As spending more time with Itt, Jenjira becomes more curious about the other side, and their situation eventually culminates to a long sequence where the aforementioned medium gladly lets herself possessed by Itt’s spirit for Jenjira in a way which may take you back to that famous scene between Whoopi Goldberg and Demi Moore in “Ghost” (1990)

Even around that narrative point, the movie sticks to its restrained attitude as usual, but Weerasethakul and his cinematographer Diego García provide us a number of splendid visual moments to be savored. While I found myself mesmerized by a static long-take shot which simply observes the changing lights in those special electric equipments for the soldiers, I was also impressed a lot by a pensive nocturnal scene which also deftly utilizes lightings, and I still vividly remember a hallucinogenic moment experienced by Jenjira at one point later in the story.

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In addition, the movie also works as a low-key character drama as Jenjira comes to show more of herself via her supposedly platonic relationship with Itt. Although she already married more than once and is currently living with her latest husband (He never appears in the film, by the way), that does not stop her from getting closer to Itt, and he does not mind that at all, while a bit amused by the fact that he is another solider guy in her life.

However, I am not so sure about whether I really absorbed and understood everything in the film, which is often as oblique and elusive in terms of themes and details as “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives”. According to Wikipedia, the sleeping sickness in the movie is used as a metaphor for personal and Thai societal issues, so I guess I really need to do some study before revisiting it someday, but I must tell you that the movie did not elicit anything visceral from me during my viewing.

Overall, “Cemetery of Splendor” is not something you can freely watch on Sunday afternoon, and you may dismiss it as another artsy film made only for critics, but, considering its distinctive mood and style coupled with interesting cultural aspects, I think you should give it a chance someday. Yes, I am still not as enthusiastic about the film as other critics, but I will not deny that it is another curious work from one of the most fascinating filmmakers in our time.

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