Cemetery of Splendour follows retired volunteer worker Jen (Jenjira Pongpas) as she helps her new friend, the young medium Keng (Jarinpattra Rueangram), care for a group of soldiers suffering from a strange sleeping illness, which they appear to be unable to recover from. Jen forms an almost spiritual bond with Itt (Banlop Lomnoi), a soldier with no visitors. Be prepared for thought-provoking issues including loneliness, work, friendship, spirituality, nostalgia and love, carefully touched on by the Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul.
His depiction is admirably unafraid, choosing to work outside of Thai studio system’s rules (which the majority of filmmakers adhere to strictly), and refusing to screen his latest work in his homeland, for fear of provoking the military junta in power there. Expect to be pulled into a fictional world which often comes frighteningly close to reality, through Weerasethakul’s borderline documentary style.
The shots, both broad and short, are photographically beautiful throughout the film. Weerasethakul makes a sunny day’s lightly clouded sky appear reflected in a lake of glowing fish. The lighting choices aren’t just made for stylistic reasons, but complement the underlying theme of the bright city lights pitted against the sombre dusk of rural Thailand. The film deals with many paradoxes; the village of Khon Kaen is insomniac but sleepy, calm but hysterical, making the viewer relax, but at the same time keeping them slightly on edge, for reasons that cannot quite be placed.
The writing is at many points highly intelligent and cunning, as Jen, a self-described “simple woman”, is encompassed in a world where dreaming (through the soldiers) also means living (through Keng’s mind-reading powers). We’re invited to experience the space between the living and the dead, via not only the soldier’s dream states, but Jen’s too.
The viewer is left room for contemplation, reflection and thought, which many contemporary films deny the space, time or energy to do so. Instead of rushing to the next shot, zooming and panning, Weerasethakul allows us time to think. But sometimes we’re left waiting too long; whilst Jen sitting at the table sharing fruit with two dead, but immortal, princesses creates unnerving satire typical throughout, we’ve acknowledged the dry humour and are ready to move on. The viewer can be made to feel like Weerasethakul believes we need hand-holding and plenty (sometimes too much) time to reflect.
Although some scenes and pauses seem unnecessary and unable to contribute to the plot, which sometimes gets lost in the photographic styling, they do emphasise Weerasethakul’s solitary atmosphere. The steady shots mostly make for a refreshingly calm, complementary viewing fitting to the serene environment.
Expect mostly dry humour, combined with witty remarks and weaved through serious issues providing some light-hearted relief, but often confusion at the distasteful nature Jen and her friends make fun. The slightly dark, animalistic mortal qualities can appear crude, but the approach is one of honesty and openness about the grim, but necessary, essentials of human life.
Cemetery of Splendour was shown at the University of Sheffield’s cinema Film Unit. To find out more about Film Unit, check out their website at http://www.filmunit.org.uk/