At this point I’m convinced you could take every feature film by Apichatpong Weerasethakul and edit together one long coherent narrative with very little effort. While this is a review of Cemetery Of Splendour, it’s going to be difficult to not mention his previous films as each one feels like a sequel to the one that came before it.
Sickness has been a common theme in Weerasethakul’s work as of late. His 2010 feature Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives dealt with kidney disease, and the feature before that, Syndromes & A Century, took place inside of a hospital. Ghosts and/or supernatural occurrences have also been a staple within his work. Boonmee is visited by the spirits of his dead relatives throughout the course of Uncle Boonmee, while one of the main characters in Tropical Malady transforms into an animal by the end of the movie (a similar transformation also happens in Uncle Boonmee).
Cemetery Of Splendour is no different when it comes to sickness, spirituality and unexplained phenomena. In the film we’re witness to a mysterious/unexplained sleep epidemic that’s disrupting a Thai village (just imagine an intense, more hallucinatory form of narcolepsy). We also watch the relationship between a hospital volunteer, Jen, and a patient, Itt, that teeters the line between motherly & flirty.
The hospital scenes in Cemetery Of Splendour look like interchangeable moments from both Syndromes and Uncle Boonmee. The characters in the aforementioned films could also very well be extras walking around in the background of Cemetery Of Splendour. A lot of the same actors are used (similarly) in every one of these movies. Co-star Banlop Lomnoi plays a soldier in both Tropical Malady & Cemetery Of Splendour. Lead actress Jenjira Pongpas plays the same caregiving aunt-like character in Blissfully Yours, Uncle Boonmee & Cemetery Of Splendour.
Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s latest is definitely more enjoyable if you’re familiar with his previous work — his last few features are easy to attain. Some are currently streaming between Amazon and Netflix, while a few shorts are up on YouTube. I’m not saying you can’t enjoy this if you’re a novice, but at the same time, watching Cemetery Of Splendour without knowledge of the films that came before it is kind of like being introduced to the cinema of David Lynch or Claire Denis by watching Inland Empire or Bastards, respectively.
Weerasethakul continues down the hallucinatory path that Carlos Reygadas made a dent in a few years back with Post Tenebras Lux (a path that was previously chipped away at by the likes of Tarkovsky, Sokurov & post-Thin Red Line Malick). If there’s ever been a case to draw a comparison between Reygadas & Weerasethakul – this is it (after the release of Post Tenebrasux Lux I found quite a few critics name-dropping Weerasethakul in their write-ups). Like PTL, reality, daydreams and hallucinations start to mesh in to one beautiful droning blob in Cemetery Of Splendour. I’d be remiss to leave out how much I was reminded of Only God Forgives at certain points. Apichatpong’s slow pace and use of neon-lighting (something new for him) was very similar to Refn’s lens.
I did struggle with some aspects of this film. On one hand it’s really cool that all of his movies weave together so seamlessly. But at the same time, it’s difficult to decipher certain scenes in Cemetery Of Splendour from certain scenes in Uncle Boonmee or Syndromes and A Century. Apichatpong Weerasethakul is obviously not the first director to make a slight variation of the same basic plot. Take David Lynch for example – Lost Highway, Mulholland Drive and Inland Empire are all pretty much the same basic plot (split personality disorder, alternate universes colliding in to one another, etc). But the execution from one film to the next is pretty different. That’s not really the case here with Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s latest. While watching Cemetery Of Splendour I found myself going: “isn’t this a scene from one of his older movies? I feel like I’ve seen this before”. But at the end of the day I have the desire to watch this again so that equates some form of success in my book.
This isn’t a criticism in any way but Apichatpong’s latest feels like a beautiful, yet somewhat unfinished idea that he just had to get it out (like a detailed sketch you might find in an artist’s well-kept sketchbook). It’s like a gumbo pot of ideas ranging from spirituality to sociopolitical awareness. Prior to the NYFF screening, Apichatpong, who couldn’t be there in person, sent along a rather cryptic message for the audience that would lead one to believe he was unhappy with the current state of Thailand. Throughout the course of the film he hints at everything from unwanted property development & issues concerning skin complexion, to hospitals in small villages not having enough equipment to take care of the sick.
Apichatpong Weerasethakul leaves plenty of room for the audience to zone out from time to time. There were a few moments when I totally stopped paying attention and just zoned out to the hypnotic imagery in front of me (I also thought it would be interesting to write the first draft of this review dead tired on the train just after watching the film). One Enter The Void-esque scene in particular, where an overhead shot of an escalator overlaps with a neon-lit hospital room, stood out the most to me. Cemetery Of Splendour relies more on static shots and its hypnotic tone than it does dialogue or a straightforward plot. That may sound boring to some of you (which is perfectly understandable) but those of you who like art-house cinema, moments of mind-numbing silence and experimental feature filmmaking will more than likely enjoy this.