Directed by Apichatpong Weerasethakul
Country: Thailand / other
If you ask me why Apichatpong Weerasethakul is considered one of the most respectable contemporary directors, my answer is: go see “Cemetery of Splendor”. As an admirer and avid follower of his unique creative style, I can easily state that ‘Cemetery’, in its beautiful humanity, spirituality, gracious humor, and emotional splendor, is the most accessible work of his distinguished career, which comprises titles such as “Blissfully Yours”, “Tropical Malady”, “Syndromes and a Century”, and the Palme D’Or “Uncle Boonmee”.
However, and similar to the films mentioned above, this enchanting opus will only reward the viewers with the time and patience to let themselves be grabbed by the magical spells of life and death, sickness and cure, modern and ancient, physical and spiritual forms, past and present, dream and reality, national and foreign, and happiness and sadness.
Still, I’ve found an extensive openness in this film that I can’t find in any of the others. Perhaps because of its immense generosity since giving and receiving are also central elements of the story.
The enigmatic narrative presents us with Jen (Jenjira Pongpas), a housewife who volunteers at a local hospital and former school, where soldiers spend most of their time sleeping, with colorful respiratory tubes connected to their mouths and noses through a mask. These men are known as the ‘sleeping soldiers’, and all of them suffer from an inexplicable medical condition in which they abruptly fall asleep, remaining in that deep state for several hours. Jen gets fascinated with Keng (Jarinpattra Rueangram), a sympathetic psychic who helps at the hospital and has the ability of mind reading, and befriends with Itto (Banlop Lomnoi), a beloved soldier whom she considers her own son, often taking him out to eat and to engage in warm conversation.
When she’s not with Itto or Keng, the patriotic Jen is with her American boyfriend, Richard Widner, an ex-military who sold everything in the States and came to live with her. In a pretty funny scene, we find them in a shrine offering miniatures of animals to the goddesses in exchange of some requests that includes the cure of her shorter leg and Itto’s condition.
Later on, the goddesses, in flesh and blood, interact with Jen, and according to them, the soldiers’ mysterious sickness has no solution. The reason is that the hospital where they inhabit is placed on top of a cemetery of kings who use their spirit during the sleep to win ancient battles that continue to occur. In this interaction, the director wittily suggests the factor ‘aging’ as a concern for Jen. The goddesses look so young and their skin is so perfect that only death can do that miracle. They won’t make Jen younger than she is, but rather make her see beyond the physical world that surrounds her.
In the company of a Goddess, she goes on a transcendental expedition, exploring a forest that once was a luxurious palace. The finale is simply enthralling, with Jen with her eyes wide opened in the direction of a destroyed soccer field where kids are playing. What does she see beyond that desolated landscape?
Mr. Weerasethakul’s highly distinctive vision is passed to us through the conjunction of a praiseworthy boldness in the writing and affable cinematic gestures, without the need of one single act of violence or a bad manner to be effective. This tranquility had a mesmeric effect on me, kind of an unutterable feel-good sensation that comes from a righteous world showing compassion, understanding, and good will.
Languid yet rich, peaceful yet liberator, floating yet self-assured, “Cemetery of Splendor”, is a film about the ‘unseen’ that feels simultaneously urgent and indispensable.