Cemetery of Splendor is another strange, magical tale from Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul, a film that exists on the edge of sleep and wakefulness, like a dream you’ve just had but can’t quite remember all the details of, yet you know it has soothed your soul. In the jungles of Khon Kaen (Weerasethakul’s hometown) in Thailand, an elementary school has been turned into a makeshift hospital treating soldiers who have a mysterious sleeping ailment. (The story was inspired by an actual quarantine of members of the Royal Thai Army in 2012.) Built on the site of a long-ago palace and its cemetery of kings, the clinic uses light therapy to help the sleeping patients, each of whom has a curved fixture by their bed that emits neon lights that continually change color. Jen (Jenjira Pongpas, who also plays a woman named Jen in Weerasethakul’s Mekong Hotel), who attended the school as a child and walks with a pair of crutches because her legs are two different lengths, visits her old friend Nurse Tet (Petcharat Chaiburi), who runs the clinic with Dr. Prasan (Boonyarak Bodlakorn). “The soldiers just sleep,” Nurse Tet says. “The army doesn’t know what to do with them.” Jen develops a bond with one of the patients, Itt (Banlop Lomnoi), eventually communicating through a psychic medium, Keng (Jarinpattra Rueangram), who works with the police contacting the spirits of murder victims and helping find missing persons. At times, Itt wakes up, his sense of smell sharpened, able to “tell the temperature of the lights,” only to fall asleep again. Karma, meditation, past lives, and religious statues and spirits entering human bodies become part of the unusual narrative, all while a parcel of land is curiously being dug up with construction equipment nearby.
Cinematographer Diego Garcia’s (Bestia de Cardo, Neon Bull) camera rarely ever moves, remaining still and at a distance as we are immersed in the slow-paced poetry of the film, lovingly edited by Weerasethakul regular Lee Chatametikool (Blissfully Yours, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives). Palme d’Or winner Weerasethakul (Syndromes and a Century, Tropical Malady) primarily uses natural sound until the end, when the pace suddenly picks up and cinematic music takes over. At one point, people sitting on small benches near the shore of a large lake, surrounded by thin trees, participate in a kind of choreographed dance, getting up from one bench and moving to another over and over, for no apparent reason. Later, Jen and Keng come upon a pair of statues in the woods, one of a happy couple on a bench, the other of the same man and woman, now skeletons but still content. It’s a fitting metaphor not only for the film but for life itself, emphasizing love, impermanence, death, and rebirth. Cemetery of Splendor is playing March 4 to 10 in the IFC Center series “Mysterious Splendors: The Films of Apichatpong Weerasethakul,” running alongside his previous work, Mekong Hotel.