Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s quietly incandescent new feature, Cemetery of Splendour, is so serene, so perfectly meditative, that it puts the viewer in precisely the same hushed reverie to which its characters eventually submit. Moving away from the spatial and temporal bifurcations of much of his previous work, the film fixes its tender gaze on all the myriad things one specific place was, is, and yet may be, gently and often imperceptibly shifting between past and present, legend and modernity, wakefulness and reverie. Regardless of what might lie beneath, there’s a peculiar joy in peeling away the different layers.
The place in question is an improvised hospital in Khon Kaen, Thailand which has been set up to house all the many soldiers struck down by some mysterious sleeping sickness. Jen (Jenjira Pongpas Widner), a middle-aged housewife with an American husband and one leg shorter than the other, turns up at the hospital to volunteer, recalling immediately that this former school is the one she herself used to attend. She’s quick to befriend Keng (Jarinpattra Rueangram), a medium and possible F.B.I. agent able to tap into what the slumbering inmates are dreaming, and makes one soldier, Itt (Banlop Lomnoi), into the son she never had, remarking even at the outset that she feels like the two of them are synchronizing.
Hospital life unfolds at a leisurely pace: bodies are washed, anti-snoring machines from America are installed, and seminars on meditation are given. The only interruptions come from the chicken and its offspring that wander in from time to time and the sound of the digger ripping through the earth outside. Weerasethakul captures the languorous ebb and flow of life in shots structured and strung together based on rhythm and instinct rather than any overt narrative concerns, each and every one a perfectly framed marvel: a colostomy bag slowly filling with urine, makeshift turbines splashing water across the nearby lake, dappled sunlight on a bed of leaves. The quiet routine is flecked with gentle humor and even the occasional touch of bawdiness, whether a dining soldier who falls asleep again mid-bite, a bedside discussion between three women that leads one to exclaim that she’s touched many penises in her time, and an allegedly miraculous skin cream whose fragrance is unmistakably that of sperm.
Yet other forces soon impinge on the everyday calm. When Jen comes across two beautiful young women hawking clothes, they casually reveal themselves to be centuries-old dead Laotian goddesses. They mention in passing that an ancient cemetery lies beneath the hospital, with the kings and warriors buried there draining the sleeping soldiers of their energy so they can keep fighting their age-old wars. As Jen, Keng, and Itt grow closer, their thoughts, dreams, and eventually even bodies gradually merge, led by and suffused with all the rippling layers of reality this place contains. This mood of progressive convergence is amplified by the deliberately hazy spatial relationships between each location, as school, lake, park, city, and temple all flow together to form a borderless dreamscape equally unburdened by temporal continuity. The neon lights by the soldiers’ beds soon cast their glow across the entire town; a sumptuous palace of past days is verbally conjured out of an overgrown garden; and, as the sun threatens to break through the clouds, an amoeba slowly inches its way across the image.
Rather than resisting or even questioning all this boundary-suspending somnolence, Jen, Keng, and Itt accept it with the same matter-of-factness with which an oddly metaphysical meditation exercise, an impossible-to-overlook erection, or the arrival of an immortal goddess is greeted, an attitude of good-natured forbearance that carries an oblique political message. In a place where soldiers escape their lot by fleeing into slumber, bomb shelters are only covered by a thin dusting of leaves, and the government carries out excavations so impossibly secret they can even take place in the open, there’s little to do other than quietly endure, while keeping your eyes as wide open as possible. There’s at least comfort, or even rapture, in the knowledge that everything leaves a trace: the floodwaters that once surrounded a tree, the military exercises scribbled down in a soldier’s notebook, the exertions of an entire life on one too-short leg. When reality consists of so many competing layers, what choice do you have but to try and reconcile them?
Weerasethakul’s films have always been marked by their great tenderness, unobtrusive rigor, and desire to splice the straightforward with the cryptic, with Cemetery of Splendor one of the purest, most focused expressions of these concerns. Yet, couched in perhaps the film’s strongest scene, he also seems to be making a typically indirect statement as to what film itself should be: a darkened auditorium that feels limitless, the audience standing up together to gaze at the screen, an unstemmable flow of beautifully unfathomable images, cinema as the stuff dreams are made of.