Editor’s Notes: The following review is part of our coverage of the Toronto International Film Festival. For more information visit tiff.net and follow TIFF on Twitter at @TIFF_NET.
Although this is the first Apichatpong Weerasethakul film I’ve been treated to, his name does come with a reputation of expecting the unexpected. The truth is Cemetery Of Splendour is cinematic poetry in storytelling.
Soldiers in the small Thai town of Khon Kaen, are hired by the government to dig up a mysterious building site and have been stricken with a strange sleeping disease. A small hospital has been set up in a former schoolhouse for them with volunteers and doctors attending to the soldiers. Two of those volunteers are Keng (Jarinpattra Rueangram) and Jen (Jenjira Pongpas Widner). Keng is a young medium who offers a way of communication between the affected and their relatives. Jen is an older volunteer who is drawn to a handsome sleeping soldier named Itt (Banlop Lomnoi). While dealing with her own disability (one of her legs is shorter than the other), Jen visits Ott daily to keep him company. She finds a synchronicity and comfort in his dormant presence.
Weerasethakul’s lens lingers in long shots of the mundane framed by beautiful natural light and setting.
Itt wakes up periodically, as do the other soldiers. In those waking moments, Itt and Jen bond fluidly in an oddly confessional way. Yet this is how most of Cemetery Of Splendour plays out. Weerasethakul’s lens lingers in long shots of the mundane framed by beautiful natural light and setting. There are no bells and special effect whistles, even for a film extolling the thin line between reality and dreams. It stays fully grounded in the here and now. The comatose soldiers are hooked up to machines that light up in florescent colors while the townspeople can be seen walking and sitting in weird set patterns by the water. Two deities appear before Jen dressed and looking like ordinary folk looking for conversation. Even when Jen learns who the women are, the news is taken with very little shock.
This is the brilliance of Weerasethakul’s work here: he takes the ordinary and makes it part of the extraordinary while displaying the overwhelming gentility of the every day.
This is the brilliance of Weerasethakul’s work here: he takes the ordinary and makes it part of the extraordinary while displaying the overwhelming gentility of the every day. The supernatural elements that inhabit the little town are combined with extended looks at background filigree and the immediacy of flora to the inhabitants of the town. As such, this film is a test of endurance some times by concentrating on the realistic aspects of its characters and its settings. The script’s tones are culled from very casual interactions as well. Weerasethakul understands that there is the cinema the audience sees and the one the audience renders in its head. With that awareness, the director is free to expound on allegories and make the director’s dream play out in multitudes of filmgoer’s brains. Take for example, Jen’s interactions with Itt. Are they real? Are the things they talk about based on any one reality? This is all up for the audience to interpret as they see fit, especially in the pauses offered by the drawn out shots of the film.
It is full of eccentricities and a gorgeous sensuality that even in pauses of awkwardness (the volunteers play and laugh with a soldier’s erection, Jen experiences a cathartic climax with Keng), there’s a endearing charm about these situations. While Jen talks to Itt, the audience is fully cognizant that this older woman is a person with needs, crushes, and wants like any other. Ponpas is a graceful force in her role as Jen. She plays on the border of grandmotherly sage to warm-blooded woman who just wants a little more out of life.
I would love to see this played in bigger and regular screens, however the stretched out times between story and setting might better place this film in art-house theatres. It’s a shame though because despite spread out instances, the film is a lush view of a common, yet supernatural world with infused with complex characters.
The fun part about TIFF is coming out of a movie like this completely blown away by a film and then realizing that I get to interview the director the very next day.
The truth is Cemetery Of Splendour is cinematic poetry in storytelling.