Cemetery of Splendour

 

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Thailand’s foremost filmmaker runs true to form with this impeccably crafted enigma.

 
Cemetery of Splendour

 

The Thai writer/director Apichatpong Weerasethakul recognises the problems that his name can cause and is happy to be referred to simply as Joe. That is useful but also ironical since that description is one that seems ill-suited to somebody whose works are notably avant-garde in their complexity and style and lack any easy narrative line. That said, the first half of Cemetery of Splendour finds him on masterly form in his low-key portrayal of life in a small hospital in Northern Thailand, one being used to care for soldiers who are victims of a sleeping sickness. Jen (Jenjira Pongpas Widner) is a volunteer twice married but once a schoolgirl at this very site who now comes to nurse patients. She bonds with a younger woman, Keng (Jarinpattra Rueangram), who has psychic powers and claims to be able to describe to relatives what the sleeping patients are seeing in their dreams. Jen herself is particularly drawn to caring for one patient, Itt (Banlop Lomnoi), who wakens from time to time and can then take walks outside the hospital.

This is a work in which almost all of the shots are static, carefully composed and finely photographed, and this mode means that Joe uses the editing to give the film its own rhythm. Only towards the midway point do we move into supernatural territory with the arrival of two dead princesses who reveal to Jen that the hospital was in the distant past the site of a royal palace. The very different, slow-moving and often baffling second half finds Keng’s powers enabling her to show Jen what Itt can see through his awareness of this former age. What we see on screen is Jen walking through a landscape with Keng, but the latter now represents Itt and is thus showing Jen what we don’t see, that is to say the palatial rooms that once existed on this spot.

Towards the end an anonymous voice suggests that the changes going on (and from early on we have seen diggers at work in the hospital grounds) represent something that may be more menacing for the future of Thailand than they appear to be. This is the nearest that the film comes to justifying the view expressed by some that through its concerns with Thailand’s past and present Cemetery of Splendour is indirectly a report on the state of the nation. But the film is too vague and bizarre for any meaning to be readily attached and many viewers will ultimately feel dissatisfied. However, that is unlikely to be the case with those who have been won over by Joe’s earlier and equally enigmatic films such as Tropical Malady and Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives. Joe’s work is surely an acquired taste, but for those who have indeed acquired it Cemetery of Splendour will not disappoint and anyone adventurous enough to want to start in on his oeuvre could well begin here.

 

MANSEL STIMPSON

 

Cast: Jenjira Pongpas Widner, Banlop Lomnoi, Jarinpattra Rueangram Petecharat Chaiburi.

 

Dir Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Pro Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Keith Griffiths, Simon Field, Hans W. Geissendörfer and others, Screenplay Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Ph Diego Garcia, Pro Des Akekarat Homlaor, Ed Lee Chatametikool, Costumes Phim U-mari.

 
Kick the Machine Films/Illuminations (Past Lives)/Anne Sanders Films/Geissendörfer Film/Match Factory Productions-New Wave Films.
122 mins. Thailand/UK/France/Malaysia/Germany/South Korea/Mexico/USA/Norway/The Netherlands/Hong Kong. 2015. Rel: 17 June 2016. Cert. 12A.