DIRECTED BY: Apichatpong Weerasethakul
FEATURING: Jenjira Pongpas, Banlop Lomnoi, Jarinpattra Rueangram
PLOT: Soldiers struck with an inexplicable sleeping sickness are housed at an old school, and a housewife volunteer develops an empathic bond with one young victim, which may involve entering his dreams.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Fans of Apichatpong Weerasethakul (who mercifully nicknamed himself “Joe” for the benefit of Western audiences) know exactly what to expect from his latest experiment in dream cinema: long takes, quiet moods, the blurring of the line between the real and unreal, and mundane dramatics that subtly slip into the surreal. Cemetery will please those he’s already won over, but his Palme d’Or winning breakthrough Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives makes for a better representative of his sleepy, spiritually weird style. We wouldn’t rule out adding another of Joe’s movies to the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies down the road, but it will need to venture farther into the bizarre than Cemetery does.
COMMENTS: With four minutes of nearly silent establishing shots—showing sleeping soldiers being shipped by the truckload to the makeshift hospital, and our limping protagonist making her way up the wooden planks of the porch on her way to volunteer duty—Weerasethakul throws down the gauntlet to viewers’s attention spans. This introduction is followed by an initial half-hour that seems composed mostly of long and medium shots of young men sleeping, with middle-aged women quietly sitting by their bedsides watching over them, and a lunch break to introduce the fact that one of them has psychic abilities. (We also, for reasons only Joe could explain, watch a man poop in the woods).
The movie, set in a leafy Thai jungle and scored to the hum of insects and distant rumbling backhoes, lulls us into a peaceful mood. We might be forgiven for wondering if we have fallen asleep ourselves and are dreaming when things start to change. Does the soldier Jen watches over, Itt, briefly wake up and take a meal with her? Maybe, maybe not, but surely two dead princess don’t visit her at a picnic table at the dinosaur park to share fruit and explain a possible origin of the sleeping sickness. And we might doubt that the psychic licks Jen’s deformed leg as a form of therapy. And when amoebas appear drifting among the clouds in the sky, you can be absolutely sure it’s a dream.
Cemetery of Splendor never goes anywhere, so there’s nothing to wrap up. The soldiers, and their caretakers, simply sleep and dream on, and at some point Weerasethakul decides to turn the camera off. A paradoxical offering from a Valium-toned auteur, Cemetery of Splendor is simultaneously minor and profound, inconclusive and whole. It’s a film you’re proud to have seen, but in no rush to watch again.
For those not yet ready to wake up, the 2016 Strand DVD includes a “making of” featurette and deleted scenes.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“…[Weerasethakul’a] movies work best when they’re washing over you, even when — in fact, especially when — things get weird.”–Matt Prigge, Metro