Cemetery of Splendour Review
We spend at least a third of our lives asleep and we're going to be dead a lot longer than we are alive, but these unknown and mysterious aspects of human experience are not ones that we really expect to be meaningfully explored in a visual and dramatic medium like cinema where we tend to expect realism and a clear narrative line. There are some filmmakers however who like to blur the lines between the real-world and the world of the subconscious and others who see no meaningful distinction between them. The films of Apichatpong Weerasethakul have tended to give just as much weight to the spiritual side of human experience and that remains the case in his latest film, Cemetery of Splendour.
It's not uncommon then for the viewer to wonder what level of reality Weerasethakul is operating on in any given scene in one of his films. Previously however, even if the dead and the living - and indeed past lives - co-exist in something like Uncle Boonmee, the distinction and divisions between life and death, dreams and reality, the objective and the subjective reality have been drawn fairly clearly even in the ambiguous universe of Apichatpong Weerasethakul. That's not so much the case in Cemetery of Splendour. Partly that might have something to do with a change of director of photography for the Thai filmmaker's latest film meaning that there is less emphasis on the formal technique and structure. Perhaps more crucially, there is a sense of a return to a more intuitive approach on the part of the director in how he draws from personal experiences and the manner in which he chooses to present them on the screen.
There's one scene that more or less sets the tone for how Apichatpong Weerasethakul operates in Cemetery of Splendour. Set in a make-shift hospital in the north-east of Thailand, a consultant or physician or practitioner of some less conventional form of medical treatment invites the staff to let their minds go free, break away from the rush of thoughts that preoccupies every waking moment and even much of our sleep. There's an element of meditation also expected of the viewer as well, where it's necessary to be in an open and receptive frame of mind to benefit from the experience that the director puts across in Cemetery of Splendour. It's an inviting proposition, particularly as the director does everything in his power to lull the viewer into that kind of receptive state, the film operating at a deliberate pace and with a rhythm that heightens awareness of sights, sounds and notionally even smells, giving those aspects as much prominence as any narrative element.
So while outside you maintain an awareness of the abundance of life in the sights and sounds and in the tropical heat and the light of the director's home region of Khon Kaen, you are also invited to enter the non-physical world where the inhabitants of the small improvised hospital ward reside. A number of soldiers have been afflicted with a sleeping sickness, a kind of chronic fatigue with aspects of narcolepsy and limited ability to move - although some parts of the body evidently have minds of their own. One lady, Jenjira, who has been attending the clinic for treatment to her leg, has taken an interest in one of the patients, Itt, perhaps simply because he occupies a space at the window that she once sat in when the building used to be a school room. Jen finds a way to communicate with Itt in his waking moments (or is it through a medium-induced trance?) and through the appearance of some local goddesses, she discovers the reason for the men's unknown sickness.
The narrative itself then is relatively straightforward (for this filmmaker at least), and that's a persuasive way to get the viewer to accept some of the ambiguities that lie in this grey area between waking and sleeping, between the physical and the spiritual. You don't have to think too deeply about what it means or try and understand what is happening - it's enough to just go with the flow and experience the wider universe that Apichatpong Weerasethakul explores. That's not something we are accustomed to in most western cinema and the approach taken in Cemetery of Splendour is not one that we commonly associate with a film that purports to be based on real events, but it seems to allow the director to avoid some of the academicism of his previous experiments with the cinematic medium and touch more deeply on essential truths. The results, if you are willing to go there with the director, can be immensely rewarding.