Cemetery of Splendour is an odd translation for Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s latest feature length. The Thai name for the film – Rak Ti Khon Kaen – translates to a less alluring title of “Love in Khon Kaen”, however, it’s far more indicative of the simple and enduring beauty of the work. Weerasethakul often mediates between subtle tales of romance; weaving supernatural themes tied to Thai folklore and mythologies, as well as a constant adoration of the natural beauty that enamours the slow-moving stories that take place. Weerasethakul is an inherently difficult director for many to approach, due to the way in which his films often fall together – mysterious, adroit, anti-climactic in their embrace of minimalism, with a creeping surrealism often defining the pace. That said, the result of Weerasethakul’s markedly unique approach to filmmaking is always as unpredictable and intricate as the process from which it emerges.
At the heart of Cemetery of Splendour is the story an epidemic of soldiers developing an illness that leads them into a permanent sleep. Of course, this isn’t the same as death. They continue to breathe, they just can’t wake up, and they still have the ability to dream. Jenjira is a volunteer nurse, who has a disability with one of her legs being 10 centimetres shorter than the other, causing her to often use crutches throughout. Over the course of the film she becomes spiritually entangled with one of the sleeping soldiers named Itt. At times throughout the first half of the film, Jenjira is able to pull him from his sleep and has winding conversations with him that are constantly tinged with a sense of surrealism due to the landscape of the hospital with which they take place.
The character of Keng – despite being in the film from its beginning – emerges as a major figure in the second half of the film as a younger woman who is able to communicate with the soldiers and offers herself as a temporary conduit for Itt to run through. After this, the film focuses on Itt as Keng wandering through a forest with Jenjira. It’s a tale that could be told as a fast-paced drama, as a deeply emotional climax of the film, but Weerasethakul evades cliche with a deeply poetic engagement with his characters – alongside those who play them. In particular, Jenjira Pongpas Winder (who plays Jenjira in the film) is an astounding character, who engages with the subtle styles of Wareesthakul as a director effortlessly. She’s worked with the director in Blissfully Yours, Syndromes and a Century, and Uncle Boonmee; and clearly formed a working relationship with Weerasethakul that has her giving some of the strongest performances in a wide array of his works. Cemetery of Splendour is a film that portrays the pace of a town where a vast amount of its citizens are asleep; and the rest of them seem almost to be dreaming while remaining awake.
Setting is important for Weerasethakul, with the hospital and the outdoors constantly used as a technique to evoke the slow pace of Khon Kaen, and it also makes a very personal film for the director. While elements of the film – especially its pace – are steeped in a sorted of lifted, magical mundanity, it never feels forced. For a restless audience, this is going to be a frustrating film. On the other end, Cemetery of Splendour offers an incredible amount to a calm and expectant viewer familiar with the sort of wondrous and disorienting slow cinema Weerasethakul is known for. Khon Kaen is Weerasethakul’s home turf. It’s a place where the director grew up, where he’s made films and shorts in the past, and where – as a photographer – he’s clearly aware of the most awe-inspiring shooting locations. This all comes together in what is one of Weerasethakul’s most restrained outings, but easily one of his most cinematically astounding in a visual sense.
Cemetery of Splendour’s weakest point is also one of its strongest, and that comes in its often inaccessibility to newer fans of Weerasethakul’s work; with a flip-side of familiarity and warmth to viewers who have seen a wider array of the directors works. Uncle Boonmee experiments with the same ideas of Thai folklore, however, it has a climax and moments that are far more soaring and obvious than a lot of Weerasethakul’s latest piece – which feels reminiscent of the directors earlier works, albeit mashed into a lot of aspects of experimentation more common in his more recent films. A lot of the ideas, locations and themes of Weerasethakul’s 2006 film, Syndromes and a Century, feel most visible and revisited in Cemetery of Splendour. The earlier flick was also set in the directors hometown of Khon Kaen, with most scenes set in a hospital , 1 concerned itself with the elasticity of memory, and created a poetically surreal space wherein Weerasethakul’s story took place. The fascination with neurology, the unconscious and a dreaming state all emerged in Weerasethakul’s filmic output most overtly in Uncle Boonmee, and with a broader context – including one that acknowledges Weerasethakul’s more experimental works in the art world 2 – Cemetery of Splendour is a work that emerges as a combination of years of interdisciplinary output as well as a continual broadening of influences on Weerasethakul’s part.
Cemetery of Splendour is a phenomenal meditation on memory, dreaming, and love. It transforms Khon Kaen into a subtle dreamscape, where every supernatural occurrence is brought in with Weerasethakul’s careful and intricate style of directing; summoning deeply imaginative and awe-inspiring landscapes with a constant appeal to perceptivity over panache. Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s is a neurology-obsessed love story constantly defined by the director’s style, displaying an intrinsic familiarity with the area that he seeks to depict in the film. For audiences that are willing to adapt to the slower-paced world that Cemetery of Splendour is an intimate, beautiful, and deeply worthwhile film.
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