An incurable sleeping sickness yields an elusive yet expansive rumination on matters both political and intensely personal in “Cemetery of Splendor,” the latest gently hypnotic cinematic enigma from the Thai writer-director Apichatpong Weerasethakul. While his tale of a hospital volunteer who bonds with an infected soldier emerges from the same mythic worlds explored in “Tropical Malady” (2004) and “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives” (2010), the surreal visitations here occur at a more subdued, almost subterranean level; this is an eerily becalmed work in which spiritual possessions and mysterious deities come to seem virtually indistinguishable from ordinary reality. Lacking the jungle-feverish exhilaration of the filmmaker’s greatest work, but no less suffused with beauty, humor and quietly overwhelming emotion, this cryptic “Cemetery” should be readily embraced by Weerasethakul’s festival fans, but commercial prospects look pretty grave beyond the usual self-selecting arthouses.
Somewhat recalling “Syndromes and a Century” (2006) with its rural hospital setting, “Cemetery of Splendor” has an unusually clear, even concrete narrative; there are no abrupt structural divisions or elisions in evidence, and (somewhat sadly) neither are there any red-eyed Chewbaccas or cunnilingus-inclined catfish. If anything, however, that deceptively straightforward quality merely deepens the mystery; it’s the sort of film that prompts an attentive viewer to ask not “What’s going on?” so much as “What’s really going on?” As was ever the case with Weerasethakul — known to one and all as Joe, a nickname that cuts to the heart of his demanding-yet-disarming appeal — answering these questions has never been a prerequisite for appreciating the sense of magic and melancholy that emanates effortlessly from the screen.
Set in Weerasethakul’s hometown of Khon Kaen, located in the northeast Thai region of Isan, the film unfolds in and around a former school that has since been converted into a small clinic for military soldiers who have fallen into a mysterious coma. Here to help take care of the men and make their slumber more comfortable is kindly volunteer Jenjira (Jenjira Pongpas Widner), who’s coping with her own physical disability; with one leg 10 centimeters shorter than the other, she’s forced to get around on crutches. Jenjira watches with particular care over a handsome soldier named Itt (Banlop Lomnoi), whom she starts to feel as though she’s “synchronizing” with. The bond seems to be mutual: Itt happens to revive just as Jenjira is bathing him, in a moment of understated sensuality that’s perfectly in keeping with Weerasethakul’s earthy, bawdy sensibility. (Also on offer here: some discreet woodland defecation and an erection sight gag even your mother could love.)
Consciousness comes and goes easily for these traumatized narcoleptics — we see one of them suddenly drop off again mid-meal — but Itt seems to spend most of his waking moments with Jenjira. She in turn lights a candle for him at a local Buddhist shrine with her significant other, Richard (Richard Abramson), an American who’s recently relocated to Thailand to be with her. The two goddess statues gracing that shrine will later take on human form and appear to Jenjira in broad daylight (played by actresses Sjittraporn Wongsrikeaw and Bhattaratorn Skenraigul), in the sort of delightfully matter-of-fact revelation that requires no visual effects to leave you feeling thoroughly enchanted.
A similarly lo-fi bit of sorcery is introduced with the character of Keng (Jarinpattra Rueangram), a young medium who has the ability to read the men’s thoughts and memories in their sleep, and communicates them to their loved ones. She offers to serve as a sort of psychological conduit for Itt and Jenjira, and much of the second half of “Cemetery of Splendor” is devoted to a lengthy conversation between Jenjira and Keng-as-Itt, their transmigration of souls culminating with an intimate gesture of physical and emotional healing that is as grotesque as it is undeniably affecting.
Few filmmakers this side of David Lynch are as adept or intuitive as Apichatpong Weerasethakul when it comes to appropriating the language of dreams, which makes it somewhat surprising that “Cemetery of Splendor,” a movie explicitly concerned with sleeping and dreaming, remains firmly embedded in what seems to be a continually waking reality. Those desiring a headlong plunge into the untamed natural world that is Weerasethakul’s sweet spot may feel a bit bereft: With the exception of one baffling, brain-tickling image of an amoeba slowly crawling its way across a cloudy sky, the picture seems inclined not transport us into a bizarre parallel reality, but rather to frame its environment for us in ways that are inherently strange and beguiling. We often return to the clinic at night, when the soldiers are undergoing an experimental treatment using lights that continually change color; the effect, which suggests a gathering of giant, glow-in-the-dark candy canes, is utterly transfixing.
According to the film’s production notes, its premise was inspired by a strange outbreak that required 40 soldiers to be quarantined at a northern Thai hospital. That incident occurred about three years ago, roughly coinciding with the country’s latest wave of political turmoil, and it’s no huge leap to interpret the sleeping soldiers as a stand-in for a government paralyzed by protests, coups and other outbreaks of violence. When it’s revealed that the school/hospital is resting on a burial ground for past kings of Thailand, whose ongoing spiritual battle is directly tied to the soldiers’ dormant state, it feels like nothing less than a lament for a nation whose internal strife dates back centuries.
All of which runs the risk of reducing “Cemetery of Splendor” to a bare-bones political allegory and disregarding its wondrously personal elements. We are even more firmly on Weerasethakul’s home turf than usual, and in one sense, the film is about nothing more (or less) profound than the sights and sounds of his childhood, whether it’s a field where kids play ball in the distance while a bulldozer rips into the earth; a busy night market where Itt and Jenjira munch on local delicacies; or a local multiplex showing some delirious-looking Thai schlockfest of a sort that perhaps inspired Weerasethakul to embark on his own (admittedly very different) filmmaking career. But beyond these snippets of memory, the film is lovingly grounded in the rhythms of its two leads’ growing rapport, and it draws tremendous warmth and feeling from the performance of Pongpas Widner (who has worked with the director since 2002’s “Blissfully Yours”), who, amid all these layers of topical subtext and semi-autobiographical storytelling, succeeds in making the film very much her character’s story.
As ever, the unhurried pacing will strike the uninitiated as simply too somnambulant by half; a line of dialogue like “Don’t fall asleep yet, please” may seem an invitation to do just that. Yet while “Cemetery of Splendor” is unabashedly a work of slow cinema, the oft-hurled pejorative of “difficult” seems a particularly poor fit for a film whose unforced lyricism could scarcely be more graceful or inviting. The crystalline images, lensed by Diego Garcia (taking over for the director’s usual d.p., Sayombhu Mukdeeprom), are carefully but never rigidly composed, positioning us in easy proximity to the characters while still offering pictorially ravishing views of Khon Kaen’s lush natural scenery. Lee Chatametikool’s steady cutting maintains rhythm and flow, never devolving into a long-take endurance test, and Akritchalerm Kalayanamitr’s sound design, while less overpoweringly atmospheric than usual, deepens our sense of immersion.