I’m going to do something in this review that is probably uncommon for film reviews and is most likely frowned upon by other critics. Luckily, I’m not like other critics. I don’t have any sort of schooling or film review and writing training but, instead, hours upon hours of watching movies and talking and debating about them. So what am I going to do? Well, now it seems very anti-climactic after all the set up but I’m going to let you behind the curtain and tell you I’m copying and pasting a major point of this review of Cemetery of Splendour. Why? I can not keep writing the director’s name over and over because I can’t figure out the spelling let alone the correct pronunciation. So now I write it for the first time so I have my template: Apichatpong Weerasethakul.
I am completely unversed in this Thai director’s work, however acclaimed his past work is. Syndromes and a Century was released in 2006 and was nominated for the Golden Lion (Best Feature) at the Venice Film Festival as well as the Gold Hugo at the Chicago International Film Festival. Grabbing even bigger acclaim, Weerasethakul released Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives in 2010 which won the Palme D’or at Cannes and Best Foreign film at the Independent Spirit Awards as well as seven other awards across the world. This Bangkok born director was heavily celebrated and I had no idea who he was. Shame on me, right? Well, there was good news and that was that Cemetery of Splendour was getting a Vancouver release and I could experience Apichatpong Weerasethakul for the first time.
Cemetery of Splendour takes place in the director’s native country of Thailand, around a makeshift hospital dealing in a very specific kind of medical patients. A strange affliction has affected a group of soldiers in the area causing them to have a mysterious narcoleptic ailment, confining them to a makeshift hospital ward in a converted former grade school. A physically handicapped woman named Jenjira, a volunteer and housewife, starts to work at the ward, watching over Itt, a soldier that has no loved ones to come visit him. While there she befriends Keng, another volunteer who gives the soldiers a service that not everyone deems necessary or even believable.
Keng is a medium who tries to use her psychic connection to bridge the gap of communication between the patients and those important in their lives. She is one of many unusual ways in which the clinic goes outside of the box to reach those soldiers close to death. In some cases, the soldiers are completely comatose, and most of the outside world believes them to be tragically lost to the sickness. As Jen continues her journey of discovery with the patients and trying to understand any thread of recovery, she begins to see connections with the central problem and an ancient mythical palace on the land that the clinic exists.
Much like Terrence Malick’s Knight of Cups the week before, Cemetery of Splendour is a film that just refused to connect with my movie brain, no matter how beautiful all the imagery was that I was seeing on screen. Weerasethakul has an incredible eye that is coupled with an extended patience of lingering for a long while on a stationary and static image. He has a quiet reservation that holds a consistency with the same way the reclusive American Malick makes his films, although I feel that Weerasethakul’s methods are much more scripted rather than made in the editing room through forty plus hours of footage, like Malick’s seem to be.
There was just not a lot in this one to leave a lasting impression or anything I could recommend while giving the final product any sort of a definitive ruling on what it all was about in the end. There were moments of the film that felt like the colors and scheme of a David Lynch film but without the menace, shock and pay off of his films. Seeing the color shift of the tubes besides each patients bed gave it this ethereal dreamlike feel synonymous with some of Lynch’s more avant garde work. It’s a bit of a hurdle to even get to this point of Cemetery of Splendour, especially twenty minutes into the movie we see a character give a full bowel movement on camera in a scene that is at least five minutes long. I have to hand it to Apichatpong, I have never seen anything like that on film before and I still feel weirded out by it.
Again with this one and very much like Knight of Cups, Cemetery of Splendour will never see mass appeal and will leave a majority of people scratching their heads with a plethora of questions. What does it all mean? What is Weerasethakul saying with this film? Is this film a damning of many things within the Thai government, medical system and cultural hierarchy? I guess, really, only the man himself really knows and I can tell you for a fact that I didn’t really get it but I know my eyes feel richer for going through the process and, unlike Malick, it had more of a narrative for me to follow. I give Cemetery of Splendour a two out of five.