Cemetery of Splendor
CEMETERY OF SPLENDOR, drama/fantasy, not rated, in Thai with subtitles, Center for Contemporary Arts, 4 chiles
Director Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s feature is an allegory for the modern world, one that hints at deeper meanings than its straightforward narrative might immediately suggest. It’s set in a rural town in a northern region of Thailand, at a former school that’s been converted into a temporary medical facility where soldiers rest in limbo. They are suffering from a mysterious sleeping sickness that has left them mostly comatose. Jenjira ( Jenjira Pongpas), a woman with a slight deformity (she has one leg that’s shorter than the other), is a volunteer at the clinic who watches over the men. Jenjira is particularly taken with Itt (Banlop Lomnoi), a soldier who receives no visitors.
As soldiers drift in and out of consciousness, the doctors try treatments, such as colored light therapy, which fail to ease their affliction. The wall separating waking reality and the soldiers’ subconscious dreams grows thin after Jenjira’s young friend Keng ( Jarinpattra Rueangram), a medium, begins communicating with the men psychically, as a go-between for the soldiers and their loved ones. Jenjira begins to feel a bond with Itt, who spends his waking moments with her. In the film’s second half, Keng helps Jenjira and Itt to communicate by acting as a conduit, channeling an unconscious Itt so that he and Jenjira, who regards him as though he were her own son, can converse. A clue to the enigma of the sleeping soldiers might just lie in the cryptic notebook Itt has in his possession. The makeshift hospital rests above a cemetery that was once the burial place of kings, whose spirits have not found rest.
Cemetery of Splendor is very much a character-driven drama. We feel great sympathy and emotional investment in the developing friendship between the kindly Jenjira and the handsome young Itt as the film proceeds at an unhurried, fluid pace. Moments observed throughout, such as an earth digger outside that tears into the ground, take on a resonance that suggests a peeling away of surfaces to get at the truths buried beneath. The film is rich with imagery that is fairly commonplace, although the connections between the images go unexplained and are left to weave an ambiguous web. The film shifts subtly between its representations of the conscious and subconscious worlds, to the point where we are never really quite sure what’s going on. Mundane, everyday actions quietly reverberate with portent. The past and the present, myth and history, man and woman, fantasy and reality — all are conflated into a luminous, sublime series of moments in this place: a place of sickness, but also of healing, a place where goddesses appear in human form and offer clues to the mystery. Cemetery of Splendor is a wonderfully puzzling delight.
The go-between: from left, Jarinpattra Rueangram, Jenjira Pongpas, and Banlop Lomnoi