Cemetery of Splendour is a stoic, and occasionally sleepy Thai film in which very little and quite a lot seems to occur simultaneously. That is often the case for the work of Apichatpong “Joe” Weerasethakul, where the subdued drama only accounts for the surface of a contextually rich cultural commentary. Commentaries which may or may not even be there if you wanted to extrapolate on the filmmaker’s “you don’t have to understand everything,” remarks regarding his Palme d’or winning film Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives; however, the specificity of his characterizations can become oddly absorbing – outside of its quieter lulls.
Cemetery of Splendour takes place at a rural school-turned-hospital where soldiers lay dormant with a sleeping sickness. Jenjira (Jenjira Pongpas) visits the hospital where she was once a young student but comes as a volunteer, tending in particular to a handsome soldier named Itt (Banlop Lomnoi). Before long, the worlds of the living, barely living and dead begin to collide, as these forces tend to in the movies of Joe W. Jenjira is visited by a pair of ghost princesses, grateful for the tithes Jenjira left at their altar. One of the hospital’s nurses speaks with the spirit of those in deep sleep, communicating with the patient’s still living and nagging relatives, who’d rather ask the spirits about secret mistresses than the afterlife.
Sprinkling absurdity into the seemingly mundane setting adds touches of unexpected humor. Cemetery of Splendour is so still and serene that even the most minor change can feel jarring. When a group of nurses notice the growing erection of one of the bedridden soldiers, their sudden break from seriousness is a joy to watch. The filmmaker’s ability to produce subtle and authentic reactions from his actors turns bizarre moments into endearing nuance.
Each scene consists of only a few shots. Joe uses the different setups to gradually pull out and reveal more of the world in which his characters exist. Few filmmakers are as capable of expanding a world through a simple cut, but the way Weerasethakul builds on top of his scenes is entrancing. The gorgeous cinematography, which often blends rustic and modern elements, such as the hypnotizing shots of glowing neon bedside lights, is captivating in its own right.
At least in part, Joe’s latest film appears to be a meditation on the impermanence of physical forms. The school that Jenjira knew is now a hospital that’s getting torn up yet again. Those who are dead come back to speak with her and are treated just like the living. These metaphysical concepts are something Weerasethakul has explored in other films, though its treatment in Uncle Boonmee is far more engaging and a better starting point for those unfamiliar with his films. The sluggish pace and dry line deliveries might be too slow for most mainstream audiences, and truthfully Cemetery of Splendour might test your patience, as it did mine. Still, the film’s complexities lends itself to analysis and its most memorable sections are fascinating.