‘Cemetery of Splendor’
Director: Apichatpong Weerasethakul
Stars: Jenjira Pongpas Widner, Banlop Lomnoi
5 (out of 5) Globes
It might sound criminal when talking art house cinema, but you don’t want to think too hard during a film by Apichatpong Weerasethakul. The Thai wonder’s movies work best when they’re washing over you, even when — in fact, especially when — things get weird. “Tropical Malady” casually introduced a talking monkey; “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall his Past Lives” boasted a woman getting pleasured by a smooth-talking catfish. The strange and unusual are presented as normal, and we’re begged to accept a world where the fantastical really can happen — where life really is bigger and more amazing than what’s in front of us.
Both his calmest movie yet and arguably his busiest, “Cemetery of Splendor” unfolds — as “Syndromes and a Century” did — in a remote country hospital. A rash of sleeping sickness has befallen numerous soldiers, their comatose bodies tended to by nurses. One of them, Jenjira (Jenjira Pongpas Widner), a middle-aged local with a bum leg, winds up befriending a soldier, Itt (Banlop Lamnoi), who suddenly wakes up. Or has he? The whole affair could be in her mind or he could be an apparition, like the ancient princesses who suddenly materialize from their spot as statues dotting a river bed. There’s even a medium who swears she can speak to soldiers as they slumber, and even tap into their past lives. In a movie such as this, she’s definitely on the level.
Past and present, dream and reality, living and dead commingle in “Cemetery of Splendor,” whose hospital even resides atop an ancient temple once ravaged by war. The ghosts of the past are free to wander in, and no one raises an eye when they’re suddenly enjoying lunch with someone who long passed on into eternity.
“Cemetery’ doesn’t have the games or fractured plotting of other Weerasethakuls, like “Tropical Malady,” which morphed from a romance into a jungle adventure, or “Syndromes and a Century,” which repeated itself in subtly different ways. It’s closer to the second, longer part of his 2002 white noise machine movie “Blissfully Yours,” where the dense sounds of the jungle lull characters and viewers itself into a dazed revelry.
It feels like a waking dream, with shots that go on forever, whether characters are engaged in idle chatter or simply, as it were, catching some z’s. Of course, actually nod off and you’ll miss a killer erection joke or the sight of the hot neon “sleeping tubes” that have been placed in the sleeping ward, in an attempt to ease patients back into consciousness. For viewers it will be hard to snap back into reality after, perhaps wishing the world really was this magical, or at least this serene.