4.19.2016

The Films of 2016: Cemetery of Splendor



Time routinely gets warped in the films of Apichatpong Weerasethakul, the Thai auteur behind such art-house and festival-circuit favorites as Tropical Malady (2004) and Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2011).  As in the films of Andrei Tarkovsky, for whom cinema represented a form of temporal sculpture, Apichatpong’s films have a pace and rhythm that work to lull the viewer into a meditative state.  There comes a point about halfway through Apichatpong’s latest, the beautiful and enigmatic Cemetery of Splendor, when the main character, a middle-aged woman named Jenjira (Jenjira Pongpas) who works as a volunteer at a veterans’ clinic in the south of Thailand falls asleep (maybe) and begins to dream (maybe)…or maybe it’s the film itself that is dreaming, or us. 

We experience the events of the film's second half from a state of partial consciousness.  It’s an experience that unsuspecting viewers may be uncomfortable with or unprepared for, but it’s not an unpleasant one.  It’s also perfectly suited to the plot of the film, in which young and seemingly healthy Thai soldiers suffer from a “sleeping sickness” that causes them to nod off suddenly in the middle of meals or conversations.  The men then enter a vegetative state that seems to last for days on end, during which time they are housed at the clinic and attended to by nurses and volunteers like Jen.  Insofar as Cemetery of Splendor can be considered a political film, the sleeping sickness begs to be read as a type of post-traumatic stress disorder brought on by the men’s service in the Thai army, or perhaps even more generally by the historical memory of Thailand’s legacy of political upheaval.  Jen comes to believe that the soldiers’ energy is being sapped by the spirits of those buried in the graveyard over which the clinic has been built, and ghosts and spirits flicker in and out of the film.  But it’s also possible that these, too, are nothing more than pieces of the film’s tissue of dreams. 

Apichatpong’s surrealism—if it’s even appropriate to identify him as a surrealist—is vastly different from that of someone like Lynch or Bunuel; it’s almost hypnotically serene, quiet, and modulated by gentle, almost banal humor.  Even when he stages sexual encounters between characters, they’re characterized by an innocent curiosity about bodies that is childlike (as when, in this film, three of the female attendants at the clinic giggle over the erection of one of the sleeping soldiers).  As a practitioner of slow cinema, Apichatpong dodges much of the pretentiousness and torpidity that sinks so many other such films.  Dense as they may be in certain ways, I find Apichatpong’s work to be almost deceptively engaging and accessible, because it feels completely unlabored. His films are expressions of an artist who works with the freedom and purity of the very young.  To get something out of Cemetery of Splendor, you don’t need to be able to interpret every one of its details.  You need only to be receptive to the haunting spell it casts.

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