Apichatpong Weerasethakul is, in the main, an extra-sensory filmmaker. He is intrigued by inter-human patience and colours simple tales with the vivid mythology of his native Thailand. It was sad to sense Cemetery of Splendour emerged under some duress, having been attached to seemingly dozens of production companies desperate to be rewarded with the artist’s unique vision once more; and it also seemed Weerasethakul’s most delirious fusions of Thai folk and fantasia were invested in the masterful Tropical Malady and Uncle Boonmee who can Recall his past Lives… but as with only the purest artists the man seems to have founded this story in his heart, and crafted something that evokes the numbing pressure of progress with stark serenity.
It is, for a work of slow cinema, delightfully decorated with thematic strength and rich narrative threads: Following the aging Jenjira who volunteers at a makeshift hospital where her husband and other soldiers sleep in comas, afflicted with an ethereal sickness. On her way she tentatively befriends the gifted medium Keng and semi-waking man, Itt. Weerasethakul’s moving character work shines in Jenjira, who despite having a severely disabled leg is not questioned about it once... on-screen. She is kind but firm, and the question that likely shadows her social life’s lack of necessity to her experience comes as an empathetically succinct way of clarifying the character’s outlook while subtly underpinning her more vulnerable moments. Indeed she only confronts the ailment to another in a scene branded with a slice bizarre beauty only Weerasethakul could carry off- marked as one of several gently supernatural germinations so patiently planted by the piece’s blooming space for evocatively simple surreality.
The spirit of the film, gifted life by its lens, seems to wander out as if sensing a spark in random passers-by. Slow cinema for me ignites interest in the tiniest gestures of the frame, especially when directors choose to spend their precious time on people we may never even see, or know. Who are they? What do they mean to the world; and what does it mean to them? In perhaps my favourite scene of Weerasethakul’s career, he unites the ever-drifting illusions Cemetery of Splendour has introduced and evolved into a moving, thinking, hive-minded network of directionless dreams. It seems for all the strife and anger and change inflicted upon his native land the director’s gaze remains optimistic and even in the film’s shocking wave of sleeping sickness Weerasethakul finds beauty, instead of pain.
What it deals with, in endless supply, is utterly overwhelming. The tragic trap pinning poor Jenjira to the waking world, aeons away from her comatose husband even when she is right by his side, can be sensed in the aching heaviness of her every movement; as is the tentative tinderbox nestled between her and Itt that sparks as quickly as it sputters out over fumbling questions and painful reminders of her husband’s void. And yet, somehow, Weerasethakul weaves all these concerns into a singular whole: Some chimerical glacier that spans the entire film, moving with such blissfully penetrating calm you cannot help but feel at ease with even its most troubling revelations and in essence ready to defeat them, by the side of Jenjira and her newfound friends. In this sleeping nation so far away their beautiful dreams are at once relegated from our reality and irreparably stitched into an inescapable desire to visit love again: Hope lives.
It’s a film mapped out with such delicately abstract precision that you feel both odd comfort in its crystal clarity and warm interest in the lucid delights its revelatory nature promises so irresistably. Weerasethakul reprises his images with melodic harmony, refusing to exploit repetition in order to enforce meaning. Instead, their calm pervades a greater sense of structure that is so meticulously quiet I daren’t even draw attention to its elegantly detailed design. Cemetery of Splendour is a movie that has been delicately composed down to every moving frame and it is ever-inspiring to find a filmmaker operating in that razor-balanced realm of slow cinema dedicating absolute attention to the art with such natural grace- and rewarding both his and our own patience in sublime viewing.