Rating in Stars: **** (out of ****)
Cast: Jenjira Pongpas Widner, Banlop Lomnoi, Jarinpattra Rueangram, Petcharat Chaiburi, Tawatchai Buawat
Director: Apichatpong Weersethakul
MPAA Rating: NR
Running Time: 2:02
Release Date: 03/04/16 (limited)
Upon first viewing, there is something distinctly odd (and entirely fascinating) about writer/director Apichatpong Weersethakul’s aesthetic approach to Cemetery of Splendor. Here is a story about soldiers in the modern day whose mysterious form of narcolepsy is caused, according to a pair of long-dead princesses, by the spirits of ancient kings still fighting a millennium-old war. The soldiers’ lack of wakefulness is not just physiological but spiritual. When the one to which our chief protagonist latches herself in a maternal fashion does wake, it is through two avenues: his own body, which eventually loses the ability to keep that kind of energy active, and that of a local mentalist.
This is not just spiritual silliness, as this strange and singular narrative is largely told within the present day. The princesses who visit Jenjira (Jenjira Pongpas Widner, in a very good performance that conveys world-weariness well) look like any other woman that populates the Isan province of Khon Kaen in Thailand. Jenjira and her oft-absent, American husband (Richard Abramson) had prayed at the foot of a shrine and given various items as offerings just hours earlier. It was an act done in tribute to those soldiers, specifically to Itt (Banlop Lomnoi), the soldier in whom Jenjira develops a parental sort of interest (Itt has little family of whom to speak, and certainly none of them has visited since his relegation to this small, makeshift hospital built out of an elementary school).
Even the hospital is on its way out, so to speak, soon to be replaced by a company that manufactures and sells fiber-optic cables. One has to wonder how the kings’ spirits would affect such a product when even children who attended the old elementary school complained of sleepiness for the years of its run. In any case, Jenjira and the head nurse at the hospital tend to several soldiers by a careful application of palliative medication, a healthy dose of meditation over the internal injuries that might have resulted from their days in combat, and the use of lengthy light bulbs whose hues shift color in particular striking moments within Diego García’s lush cinematography.
That last point brings me to the curious aesthetic choices made by Weersethakul and García. Almost every shot is a static one, simply observing the goings-on within and around Jenjira’s story. A waterwheel spins with great speed and determination. Bulldozers brutally renovate the land on which children play with soccer balls in order to pave the way for that cable company’s incoming location. The soldiers suffer the indignation of being in a coma and without the ability to control their bodily functions (An involuntary erection underneath bed covers is just one of a few things that might have earned the film an R rating if the MPAA had gotten their hands on it).
The film then enters a third act that fully embraces the hallucinatory qualities of Weersethakul’s intentions. The mentalist, Keng (Jarinpattra Rueangram), comes into the picture as Itt’s spirit, briefly trapped in a body that will perhaps never be cured, only treated, of its ailment, inhabits Keng, who leads Jenjira through a portion of the nearby wood, its metaphysical state now sharing that of the palace that accompanied an ancient graveyard holding the bodies of the soldiers from so many ages before. The allegory is afforded gravity by Weersethakul’s gentle hand, and as a result, Cemetery of Splendor resonates most heavily as a patient but devastating elegy.