Cemetery of Splendour review: a film of subtlety, wit and quiet bloody-mindedness

Palme d’Or winner Apichatpong Weerasethakul returns with an unconventional tale of a narcolepsy outbreak among Thai soldiers

Wide awake: Jenjira Pongpas Widner in Cemetery of Splendour

Film Title: Cemetery of Splendor

Director: Apichatpong Weerasethakul

Starring: Jenjira Pongpas Widner, Banlop Lomnoi, Jarinpattra Rueangram, Petcharat Chaiburi, Tawatchai Buawat, Sujittraporn Wongsrikeaw

Genre: Drama

Running Time: 122 min

Thu, Jun 16, 2016, 13:00

   

This is the first of Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s bewitching films whose synopsis reads like that for a Stephen King adaptation. A group of soldiers, while digging a mysterious pit, unleash a puzzling, insistent strain of narcolepsy. What other wretchedness will follow?

As it happens, Cemetery of Splendour is among the Thai director’s more conventional films. His masterpiece Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, winner of the 2010 Palme d’Or, featured copulation with fish and visitation by huge hairy spirits.

Cemetery of Splendour does have one outbreak of large-scale surrealism – a giant amoeba that falls threateningly across the sky – but, for the most part, the film stays in the everyday world.

There is, perhaps, a joke buried in the central conceit. Weerasethakul has always hovered in the penumbra between the dream life and the waking life. An attack of narcolepsy risks making Weerasethakul characters of us all. Yet Cemetery of Splendour is a sedate, ordered film that only rarely slips into the irrational plane occupied by its many dreamers.

Enthusiasts for Weerasethakul’s Syndromes and a Century will perk up at the shots of another rural hospital. The picture has much to do with a school room – illuminated at night by tubes like neon slugs – that has been converted into a ward for the sleeping-sickness victims. Jenjira (Jenjira Pongpas Widner), a woman with a nagging disability involving her legs, works as an enthusiastic volunteer at the temporary hospital. Itt (Banlop Lomnoi) awakens as she is caring for him and the two form a casual, fraternal relationship. She then befriends a medium named Keng (Jarinpattra Rueangram) who helps loved ones communicate with the comatose men.

Weerasethakul’s cinema has always been equivocal in its dealings with the religious and the mystical. He is a modern artist – a gay film-maker outside all obvious fads and traditions – who draws as much from pop videos and gallery-based art as he does from the masters.

Cemetery of Splendour does, however, really seem to be seeking a connection with the “spiritual” world. It strives for that conduit with subtlety, wit and quiet bloody-mindedness. There’s nobody quite like him.