The gods are not crazy in Cemetery of Splendour. In fact, they are quite curious about earthly goings on, including people’s fascination with reincarnation and analyzing dreams. Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s sublimely wonderful new film is so quiet at times that these otherworldly beings feel comfortable enough to take human form and engage in conversation. That sense of curiosity infects the film, too, establishing a narrative structure that playfully questions the boundaries of waking life.
Set in the Thai countryside at a newly minted hospital where doctors tend to a squadron of comatose soldiers, the film plays with time and perspective in deceptive ways. Afflicted with a bizarre sleeping disorder, the men lie in rows of beds flanked by neon fluorescent lights. Jenjira (Jenjira Pongpas) arrives one day to visit a nurse friend only to become drawn to one of the patients named Itt (Banlop Lomnoi). After spending multiple days by his bedside, Jenjira begins to think she’s “synchronizing” with him. Moments later, Itt awakens for the first time.
The two characters quickly develop an unspoken rapport. They take long walks through the town of Khon Kaen, sharing stories about their past and present, always questioning the definition of lucidity and memory. All of their self-reflection seems to be caused by energy emanating from under the hospital, an area once used as a school and before that a burial ground. Keng (Jarinpattra Rueangram), a psychic who can see the dreams of the sleeping soldiers, helps Jenjira understand the parameters of their perspective and the limitations of our world.
Cemetery of Splendour allows the viewer to do the same. Its succession of static, perfectly calm images establishes a spiritual mood that enables both the characters and their godly counterparts to exist within the same space. The result is a strange and beguiling meditation on identity that transcends gender, time period and narrative convention. Weerasethakul’s directorial patience opens up the possibilities of any given frame without compromising their dramatic weight.
Weerasethakul compels the viewer to think about nature and humanity as interconnected. The world of ghosts and creatures bridges the two, and his characters gradually come to terms with sharing the same space, seeing themselves as equals rather than subordinates. In turn, Cemetery of Splendour feels open, at peace with its malleable vision of the world. Multiple different entities and time periods overlap with each other, producing a carbon copy that only the enlightened can truly imagine.
While everything feels connected in Cemetery of Splendour, there’s also a sense of perpetual evolution at play. Outside the soldiers’ window government bulldozers unearth land surrounding the hospital, no doubt a clandestine effort to capture whatever energy forces lie beneath. Throughout, characters experience awakenings as well; late in the film Keng connects with the reincarnation of Itt, taking Jenjira for a tour of an ancient domicile invisible to the human eye. Buddhist statues and gaudy replicas of dinosaurs are the only elements that hold their true shape.
Gradually, the film overwhelms you with its pristine images and fragmented narrative, inducing a surreal headspace where the clutter and noise of everyday life fade away. But there’s a cost to seeing beyond preconception; suddenly, routine and expectation are emblems of an obsolete world that feels dangerously limiting. The film’s harrowing final shot portrays one character perpetually stuck between these realities.
Cemetery of Splendour, which opens on Friday, April 8, at the Digital Gym Cinema, challenges the definition of cinema in our Marvel-ized age. It has no use for labels and archetypes, happy endings or tragedy. Instead, Weerasethakul’s film quiets the mind, becoming a fitting anecdote to the constant bombardment of reductive images and angry sound bites that flood our lives on a daily basis. For that reason, and many others, it’s the film of the year.