Cemetery of Splendour (2015)

For better or worse, this is possibly the director’s most accessible film to date, lacking the wondrous mysticism of his previous works, yet at the same time it feels more intimate as a personal elegy.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Review #1,253

Dir. Apichatpong Weerasethakul
2015 | Thailand | Drama | 122 mins | 1.85:1 | Thai & English

PG13 (passed clean) for some sexual references

Cast: Jenjira Pongpas, Banlop Lomnoi, Jarinpattra Rueangram
Plot: A lonesome middle-age housewife, who tends a soldier with sleeping sickness, falls into a hallucination that triggers strange dreams, phantoms, and romance.
Awards: Nom. for Un Certain Regard (Cannes)
International Sales: The Match Factory

Accessibility Index
Subject Matter: Moderate – Existence, Meditation, Philosophy
Narrative Style: Slightly Complex
Pace: Slow
Audience Type: General Arthouse

Viewed: Singapore International Film Festival
First Published: 13 Jan 2016
Spoilers: No

I had the arthouse geek’s pleasure of taking a photo with Apichatpong Weerasethakul and folks from the Youth Jury.  We were there for the (only) screening of his newest film, Cemetery of Splendour, played as part of the Singapore International Film Festival. 

Apparently some Thai fans even flew to Singapore just to see the film (and ‘Joe’ himself). It was a full house, and the film played well. 

For better or worse, Cemetery of Splendour is possibly the director’s most accessible work to date – being a conspiracy theorist, I wonder could that be the reason that the film was selected to compete in the Un Certain Regard category, rather than the Palme d’Or?

Shot in the director’s hometown in Khon Kaen, Cemetery of Splendour tackles themes of memory, urbanization and myth through the intriguing notion of sleeping soldiers. 

About a dozen of them lie (rather comfortably) in a school-turned-makeshift-hospital, a space of nostalgia for Weerasethakul.  Each bed is accompanied by a fluorescent light rod that changes colours, filling the space with a therapeutic if eerie calm. 

In the film’s most visually hypnotic sequence, a similar use of alternating colours artificially illuminates shots of Khon Kaen in the night.  I think Weerasethakul is trying to capture a disquieting if beautiful sense of stillness amidst a state of endless flux.

Cemetery of Splendour, however, lacks the wondrous mysticism of some of his previous works like Tropical Malady (2004) or Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010).  There are still allusions to ghosts and mythmaking, things rather uncanny and fascinating, but the film is more realist in its approach. 

A close companion film would be Syndromes and a Century (2006), another highly personal work, incidentally also set in hospitals, and explores the rural-urban construct in relation to memories and dreams.  

Cemetery of Splendour is perhaps more intimate as a personal elegy, not so much a melancholic yearning for the past, but a sadness marked by a greater confusion over what Thailand wants to be.

Grade: B+


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