There are three states of being in Cemetery of Splendor: waking life, dreaming and remembering. For Jen (Jenjira Pongpas Widner), a volunteer at a remote hospital in contemporary Thailand, these three experiences begin to meld until they form something wholly metaphysical. For those willing to give in to the movie’s esoteric rhythms, Cemetery of Splendor will be a similarly unusual journey. At its most potent, the film evokes its own unique state of being.
The hospital where Jen serves is a former schoolhouse – in fact, it’s the schoolhouse she attended decades ago as a child. The main classroom, which is constructed of wood and lined with open windows, now holds the beds of some two dozen soldiers who are suffering from a sleeping sickness. As still as corpses, they line the quiet room, where the only noise and movement comes from the ceiling fans above and the gentle breezes that waft through the windows.
This sort of languidness is a hallmark of Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, another film from director Apichatpong Weerasethakul. Watching both movies has the feel of sitting on an open porch, heavy-lidded, while cooling yourself with a handheld fan. If I found Cemetery of Splendor to be more accessible as a Western viewer, that’s both because it seems less tied to Thai folklore with which I’m unfamiliar and because it has a more compelling, relatable character in Jen.
A patient herself (one leg is significantly shorter than the other, causing her great pain and the need to use crutches), Jen washes the soldiers and sits quietly by their beds. She’s a contemplative figure, seemingly susceptible to other states of being. Perhaps this is why she forms a connection with Itt (Banlop Lomnoi ), a soldier who wakes one day as she’s by his side. Jen and Itt form a sweet friendship trading memories and dreams, alongside observations about their current situation. Eventually, especially when Itt falls back into his deep sleep, these three experiences (and their two identities) begin to blur. Noting at one point that she’s been resting more easily since coming to help at the hospital, Jen says of Itt, “Maybe he’s sleeping for me.”
At its most potent, Cemetery of Splendor evokes its own unique state of being.
As Jen, Widner is a quiet wonder, revealing depths of character to a woman who initially appears meek and deferential. In truth she’s bold – even flirtatious – with Itt, even as she describes him to her American husband as their “new son.” And the smiles or wistful gazes that accompany her memories subtly suggest a woman who has lived a few lives before this one.
Literal reincarnation is a touchstone here, as it was in Uncle Boonmee. We learn, for instance, that the hospital/school rests on the site of a former palace, and there is the suggestion that the soldiers are fighting for the former king in their sleep. Still, Cemetery of Splendor feels less specifically Buddhist than porously spiritual – the movie is about the striving for and perceiving of something beyond what we understand as real. Watching it is like sitting on this side of a veil, but getting a peek at what lies beyond whenever the veil is gently blown aside by a soft breeze.
Although Weerasethakul prefers a static camera, each frame is still intriguingly dynamic. There is a single shot of a park – two people furiously working out at exercise posts in the foreground, others briskly walking through the frame across the middle of the screen and then cars racing past on the street in the background – that is a symphony of motion. Later, an overhead shot of escalators at a cinema has so much movement in different horizontal and vertical directions that it plays like an M. C. Escher sketch come to life.
That imagery – of various motions occurring simultaneously within the mise-en-scène – echoes the notion of one person holding multiple states of being. The same could be said of the movie’s defining visual touch: the eerily futuristic breathing machines that are brought into the hospital to help the soldiers sleep. Next to each bed stands a six-foot-tall tube that softly glows, gradually changing colors (shifting states of being) from white to pink to red to blue. Placed in the rustic schoolroom, they evoke a melding of the past and future, of ancient ritual and contemporary medicine, of antiquity and modernity. (I thought of the train racing through Apu’s rural field in Pather Panchali.)
These tubes seem to cast a spell – not only in the hospital, but beyond. There is a quiet montage of the nearby city at night, depicting various people asleep on the street. So slowly that I almost didn’t notice it at first, the tint of the scene begins to change, as if the glow from the sleeping machines has seeped into the world outside. Once again, that veil is brushed aside, revealing a mysterious metaphysical multi-dimension that we otherwise wouldn’t perceive. Cemetery of Splendor suggests that if we insist on only understanding this world rationally, perhaps we’re asleep.