Cemetery of Splendor, director Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s follow-up to his Palme d’Or-winning Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010) and Mekong Hotel (2012), is a cosmically-paced meditation on memory, spiritual connection and dreaming. It is a transcendental viewing experience, but not one for the faint of heart.
Composed of achingly long takes, geometrically-perfect photography and visual stillness, Weerasethakul’s opus floats through the life of lonely housewife Jen (Jenjira Pongpas) as she volunteers at a military hospital in the ruins of an old school housing a group of soldiers suffering from a mysterious sleeping sickness, wound into a commentary on contemporary Thai society. Jen grows close to one of the soldiers, Itt (Banlop Lomnoi), and through conversation both waking and sleeping with the aid of Keng (Jarinpattra Rueangram), a local medium.
Cemetery of Splendor, much like the rest of Weerasethakul’s oeuvre, is surprisingly difficult to categorize. Best described as a drama, it is devoid of extravagant interpersonal conflict, but depends rather on a sense of intrapersonal discordance and anxiety. In this way, it compares favorably to the films of Michael Haneke; both share a spatial and motional distance between the camera and its subjects, as well as a preference towards minimalist sound. However, Cemetery of Splendor feels more deeply indebted to video art, it’s idiosyncratic structure making it incomparable to the majority of mainstream film releases.
In many respects, Cemetery of Splendor reflects Apichatpong’s earlier feature Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives: both take place in Northern Thailand and have a profound integration with the lush tropical landscape; both feature characters who communicate with past lives; both are glacially paced and are driven by stillness and silence. In comparison, however, Cemetery of Splendor feels like a more emotionally cohesive film. Pongpas’ central performance is extraordinary, and infuses the sweeping film with a remarkable, quiet intimacy.
For all the apparent difficulty of the viewing experience, Cemetery of Splendor is woven with such profound beauty, such gravitational importance that it becomes revelatory. Most frames – which linger statically for minutes on end – contain little movement or abrasive direction of the audience’s eye and force the viewer to search the (beautifully composed) image for significance themselves.
Through the combination of visual and auditory texture, the experience becomes surprisingly textural. From the reverent spooling through a book to the gentle, prolonged application of lotion to smooth skin, Weerasethakul invokes the viewer’s sense of nascent touch, through which the film becomes an intensely experiential experience.
I find it difficult to criticize this film. Undoubtedly, some (if not most) people will find the pacing portentous, boring, or even aggravating, but for me personally, the trance-like slowness of Weerasethakul’s pacing only enhances the alchemical magic of the exercise.