“Cemetery of Splendour’s calm, sleepy pace is both a great asset and a firm detractor. While it allows the movie to maintain its detached, minimalist sense of boundaries, there is a problem in holding viewer attention when not only is nothing going on, but the intent is for there to be nothing going on.”
by Ken Bakely
A sense of the past and the present co-existing, for better or for worse, within a nation and its people, is paramount to Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Cemetery of Splendour. Set in a remote hospital in rural Thailand, the former school complex in which it is located, and the forest nearby, is an important part of the plot’s integral fabric. Discussions between characters about the most advanced possible treatment for an odd medical condition affecting the sleep patterns of soldiers are juxtaposed with conversations in the woods, soon to be excavated, in which the location’s history as a palace for the royal family of long ago is explored.
Weerasethakul’s investment in playing with color and light – the contrast between night and day, as well as neon-ish lamps used medicinally in an attempt to investigate the soldiers’ conditions – is consistent with his attempts in muddying that line between consciousness and unconsciousness. Cemetery of Splendour’s calm, sleepy pace is both a great asset and a firm detractor. While it allows the movie to maintain its detached, minimalist sense of boundaries, there is a problem in holding viewer attention when not only is nothing going on, but the intent is for there to be nothing going on.
In any case, Cemetery of Splendour is attune to commentary with the status of Thailand, furthering the argument that everything that does take place happens at once, in a way, as it permeates everyday life. There is a scene in the film in which we see, on the back wall of a room inside the hospital, a pompously large portrait of Prayut Chan-o-cha, the retired general who has ruled the country with an iron fist since taking power in a 2014 military coup. It’s a sense of forced militarism which is implied to lead to the dilemma at the core of the film, stymying the staff of the facility. A consistent background of noisy construction work for inexplicable official use reiterates this.
Similarly, the movie questions the bridge between consciousness and unconsciousness, between fantasy and reality. All that is known is about the aforementioned epidemic is that the soldiers stricken with it cannot effectively operate and exist, all they can do is sleep, and they must be weaned back to reality. Sometimes, Weerasethakul dares to mix dreaming and waking life, when individuals on one side communicate with those on the other. It is then when the filmmaker’s cards are on the table, as he uses his 122 minute space to investigate the fundamental aspects of location and time in cinematic storytelling. And while he never quite arrives at a thesis, the journey through the process is certainly worth having for those predisposed to such experiences.