When a distinct, particularly divisive or polarizing, film auteur drifts into a more sedate register, there are often two probable outcomes. Either the formal restraint forces them to focus on and amplify those formal qualities in a more low-key manner, or the film can feel somewhat enervated by the absence of their stylistic signature’s most pronounced presence. For hypnotic Thai auteur Apichatpong “Joe” Weerasethakul, it can be sometimes hard to tell what thematic restraint is. One wouldn’t call Blissfully Yours necessarily bursting with bravura flourishes, but there’s something entrancingly uncertain, giddily confounding, yet emotionally palpable, about the ways it frames its simple events. With Cemetery of Splendour we do see a clear restraint, even simplification, in how he tells his stories, but telling a story that’s narratively lucid may have cost Weerasethakul what’s most captivating about his work.
The set up is fairly straightforward – again, something I never thought I’d say about Weerasethakul, but here we are. Jenjira (Jenjira Pongpas) is a patriotically passionate volunteer at a makeshift hospital for Thai soldiers, many suffering from sleeping sickness. Above the slumbering soldiers are arched towers of pulsating neon light, already conjuring the feel of a spectral dimension that’s seizing these men’s bodies and spirits. The speculative viewer will make that inference on their own, but Apichatpong, sweet guy that he is, send the flesh-and-blood incarnation of the goddesses at Jen’s local shrine to confirm the supernatural underpinning of the sleeping soldiers. Turns out the hospital rests on burial ground of feuding kings, using the soldiers’ energy to continue waging war, even after death; an alluring militaristic concept, even without much knowledge of the recent socio-political situation in Thailand.
Cemetery of Splendour not only nods to, but decisively validates the supernatural, but that validation does rob these elements of the jarring, discomfiting weight they’ve held in Weerasethakul’s previous films. They were paralyzing and hypnotic foreign presences, whereas here they’ve become systematically integrated into the “real” world. Most of the time, it results in the strange submitting to the fatness of Weerasethakul’s most staid compositions, relying more than usual on narrative and dialogue to tediously fuel the storytelling. The character’s relationships to one another – namely Jen’s friendship with awakening soldier Itt (Banlop Lomnoi) – are friendly, but overly familiar. With too few layers to unravel, what’s engaging and fascinating, dare I say even fun, about his films withers.
As frustrating as the monitored partitioning of the film’s dreamscape can be, it is truly entrancing once it suddenly emerges, flooding fluctuating colors into the systematic space of a Thai movie theater. Fittingly, this dip into fantasy realms is cued by a cartoonishly violent film trailer, so ludicrous and out-of-place that the viscous fabric of reality must tear open. “I’m the only one who’s awake,” Jen says shortly after walking into a dilapidated classroom, but it’s clear that some degree of unconsciousness and ignorance is taking hold of the Thai people overall. Weerasethakul curiously focuses on shots of rotating water circulation devices and human beings senselessly rotating positions in a lake-side park. One can’t believe these systematic occurrences are unrelated.
But the dip into the atmospherically supernatural doesn’t entirely last, as the final stretch darts infrequently between sensory tones. As a local clairvoyant woman becomes the connective link in Jen and Itt’s relationship, separated by different levels of consciousness, we see the two wandering the woods for the film’s remainder. It’s tempting to read some inadvertent queerness into see the clairvoyant licking Jen’s mangled, disabled leg; it certainly wouldn’t hurt for Joe to stress the kinky distortion of identity. It’s too bad the psychic dynamics remain conventional and heteronormative. Still, by the film’s enchanting, playful ending, it feels like some moving emotional message has been implanted in us subconsciously. Even as Weerasethakul’s sensory abilities are limited, one can’t imagine them ever becoming truly diluted.
Bottom Line: An unexpectedly conventional film for Apichatong Weerasethakul, Cemetery of Splendour feels teasingly mesmerizing, but too comfortable to astonish.