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Cemetery of Splendour

Review by Jaymes Durante

Sonorous, subdued and infused with Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s distinctive tincture of magical realism, Cemetery of Splendour continues the celebrated Thai director’s career-long rumination on the co-existence of the living with both the sentient spirits of the dead and the Buddhist deities to whom the Thai public gracefully defer. Set in a rural hospital in Weerasethakul’s hometown, Cemetery concerns a mysterious, incurable sleeping disorder affecting local soldiers, and the pert woman who sits patiently beside them. Jenjira (Jenjira Pongpas) is afflicted with a defect of her own: with one leg shorter than the other, she limps about the grounds, her contrapuntal disadvantage affording Weerasethakul a measured pace more conducive to pellucid reflection and his slow-metabolising style.

Next to the hospital, a fibre optics company rips up patches of tropical forest to make way for a factory, disrupting the centuries-old spirits of Thai kings who, we surmise, have something to do with the comatose soldiers. Jenjira (or ‘Jen’) studies the coded journals of one of the patients, Itt (Banlop Lomnoi), and by some miracle – perhaps her offering of miniature animal figurines to a local temple – draws him out of his sleep. For much of the film, the pair exchange whispered conversation as Weerasethakul supplants reality with a sense of transience and liminality. While the visuals are clear, Weerasethakul’s complex narrative does not necessarily present itself concretely. More a film of interpretation than explicit meaning, Cemetery rewards a viewer willing to fall into its trance-like rhythm and adapt its images experientially rather than literally.

Reminders of our connection to the animal world have always undergirded the illusory beauty of Weerasethakul’s films, and Cemetery is no exception. Desires and urges restore his characters’ primeval human functions. A bizarre cutaway to a man defecating in the fecund forest makes for a humorously disjunctive moment, forcing us to reconcile the composition’s sheer beauty with the markedly less elegant activity; a jaunty conversation about the male member that takes place over a sleeping soldier’s nocturnal erection gives Jen one of her best lines: “I’ve touched too many penises in my life.” In a film about the spiritual disturbances caused by human activity, Weerasethakul makes room for humour. 

Cemetery is a slight departure from the director’s structurally apportioned recent work. It sheds the ambitious and fantastical edge of the Palme d’Or–winning Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives for a gentler rumination on similar themes. Cemetery is calmer, more disciplined and translucent in its meditation on human lives and those that came before, and more affecting for its quietude.

Cemetery of Splendour screens 2, 15 August