Editor’s Notes: The following review is part of our coverage of the 2015 Vancouver International Film Festival. For more information on the festival visit viff.org and follow VIFF on Twitter at @viffest.
With Cemetery of Splendour, Apichatpong Weerasethakul has perhaps made his most accessible film. Dealing for years with spirits, dreams, and mediums, Weerasethakul’s narrative arcs have often plagued viewers in their search for meaning or personal connection. But with Cemetery of Splendour, though all these features exist, Weerasethakul’s careful direction and clear narration makes it much easier for the viewer to be transported to its real yet seemingly magical land. Notions of ghosts and spirits are not supernatural, but perfectly ordinary in his films. They are accepted as a part of life.
The metaphysical, as usual, is part of Weerasethakul’s hypnotic rumination on life that is Cemetery of Splendour. The existence of unseen aspects of life is significant in one’s reading of the film. While never shown, the Cemetery of the Kings, which presumably exists below the school/hospital, is a place where much of the action occurs. This place, however, comes to life in the form of dreams, ghosts, and body possession. For their ongoing battle, the Kings use the energy of the sleeping soldiers who are placed under care in the hospital at the school. They must have been possessed during warfare, and now they fall under sleep spells.
Jen, who appears in most of Weerasethakul’s films, all of which exist in the same world with the same people in them, arrives as a volunteer at the hospital. She begins talking to a soldier, Itt, and a psychic, Keng. At one point, Keng is able to tap into a sleeping Itt and thus see what he is seeing in his dreams. Becoming Itt, he speaks to Jen, with Keng as a medium, telling her what exists in which place. The opulence of the cemetary is described while sights of the drab modern environment are seen. The transformation of space and time, here, is ordinary for Weerasethakul, who seems to believe in a more spirited way of living. There is much among us which we cannot see, existing in the same space and time as we do. Itt tells Jen to open her eyes to ensure she isn’t dreaming. The film ends with Jen wide eyed, taking in what the world of reality and dreams, lives and spirits has to offer.
The mise-en-scene of Cemetery of Splendour is hypnotic with many gorgeous shots of nature in soft alchemical colours. Colour coursing is used a number of times, giving certain objects an added hypnotic sensibility. At one point, a circular ceiling fan spins while the colour shifts warmer. In a scene outdoors, a man lies on the ground in front of an advertisement while colour shifting occurs. Next to the beds of the soldiers, neon tubes provide light therapy in their shifting flow of colours. The circular fan is not the only one, there are multiple other circular objects throughout the film, including a rotating water turbine which is seen at the opening and closing of the film.
These objects serve as a motif for the circular nature of life, of life’s constant movement forwards. It also provides a rhythmic pattern for the film to resonate amongst its parallel images. In perhaps the film’s grandest scene, a winding escalator slowly dissolves into the room of sleeping soldiers. This long take presents a blue neon-lit four level escalator transforming into an image of neon tubes illuminating the hospital room. As they ever so slowly merge, the blues of the escalators with the warms reds of the hospital, a synthesis is found, the kind of synthesis presumed between the land of the living and the land of spirits which co-exist.
Almost the entire film is shot in long static takes with a natural soundscape of Thailand. Bugs and animals combine to form the film’s musical symphony. In harmony with this natural aesthetic is a highly earnest tone. Through this, while the film holds many complex qualities and tells a highly complicated story, Cemetery of Splendour is truly a grounded and meaningful evocation of the ineffable world of metaphysical objects and thought.
While the film holds many complex qualities and tells a highly complicated story, Cemetery of Splendour is truly a grounded and meaningful evocation of the ineffable world of metaphysical objects and thought.