Cemetery of Splendour (2015)

Apichatpong Weerasethakul | 2hr 2min

In a former elementary school somewhere in Thailand, a temporary clinic has been set up to manage the overflow of comatose soldiers from a nearby hospital. A mysterious “sleeping sickness” has been taking over military units, and the only way nurses have been able to treat them is by soothing their dreams through light machines, each one standing tall above the beds like over-sized, neon canes. Outside, palm trees and bamboo try to peek through the upper-storey windows into these classrooms, but every night the shutters are closed to cut out any natural light, letting the artificial glow of red, green, blue, and pink hues softly bathe the room. As the machines rotate through colours in this otherwise pitch-black space, Apichatpong Weerasethakul invokes a hallucinatory dreamscape of hypnotic effervescence, described by one character as looking “like funeral lights”, though often feeling more like ethereal representations of human souls, constantly shifting in cyclical patterns as if they were alive.

For all the beauty of these psychedelic sequences, and as unique a cinematic artist as Weerasethakul is, Cemetery of Splendour does not go down as one of his finest works. The extended middle sequence which sees those neon colours reach out into public spaces like some spiritual infection and which lets the camera gaze down several storeys of intersecting escalators as if descending to hell stands out as a highlight, but elsewhere there is little that matches the delirious jungle madness of Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives or the masterfully mirrored structure of Syndromes and a Century. For the most part, Weerasethakul largely commits to long, static takes of tropical nature reserves and rural interiors – a formally consistent choice, effectively infusing a quiet stillness into Weerasethakul’s tableaux, if not particularly exciting.

The greater intrigue here lies in the quiet air of mystery that envelops this clinic and the surrounding forest in a dreamy shroud, blending sleeping and waking life to the point that they are not just indistinguishable, but virtually the same. Jen is the clinic volunteer who we quickly latch onto and follow through these obscure states, as she develops a particular attachment to one specific patient, Itt, who is among the many soldiers that have fallen into a coma. Their relationship is initially one-sided with her being the only one between them talking, but then Itt begins to talk back. Soon, they are going out for lunches and dinners together, and as he learns about her family and cultural background, she learns about what lies on the other side of unconsciousness.

As we discover, the answer has been foreshadowed all along by the motif of the digger outside the clinic excavating earth. Beneath the surface are the graves of ancient villagers and soldiers, buried on the site of a once-great palace where a king was defeated in battle. Now, he is using the spirits of modern-day soldiers to fight his battles in the afterlife, enlisting them against their will while they helplessly slumber. They are never expected to recover from this haunting illness that has forced them to serve a monarchy they don’t believe in, but the closest they might come to regaining consciousness is this in-between state that Itt exists in with Jen, seeing both the modern buildings and jungle which conceals the land’s history, and the kingdom which once dominated the landscape.

Weerasethakul is no stranger to mystical stories that ponder processes of healing, reincarnation, and dreams, but in the allegory at the heart of Cemetery of Splendour he also evokes his common themes from an unusually political angle. This kingly command over dormant soldiers echoes the anti-defamation laws protecting Thailand’s monarchy, subjugating and forcing its people to lend their arms to a ruling power that no longer holds any relevancy. Their sleep is a disturbed one, trapping them in an afterlife that blocks the natural cycle of reincarnation from taking place.

As Jen wanders a park of concrete Buddhist sculptures and wooden gazebos, Itt points out the features of the palace that once stood, seeing through time via the supernatural sickness that has taken over his body. Perhaps whoever is operating the excavators outside the clinic is similarly trying to gain a better understanding of the past by exhuming its artefacts, or maybe they are digging even more graves for those casualties of a cruel, careless government. Either way for Weerasethakul, the pits they create are symbols of death and permanent stasis, trapping the minds of the Thai people in a half-conscious state that keeps them powerless against the abuses of human rights visited upon them.

Cemetery of Splendour is currently streaming on SBS On Demand.

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