By Arpad Okay. In Cemetery of Splendour, a sleeping sickness draws soldiers to a hospital built on ancient ruins. Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s film follows a nurse, Jenjira, who finds a patient’s diary — an increasingly chaotic map of the spirit world in which he is lost. Everything changes for Jen when experimental color therapy causes the soldiers to begin waking up.
Have you ever spent time in a hospital or a cemetery? This movie is that slow. Andy Warhol slow. Lingering in the setting is of greater importance than moving the plot forward. The chromotherapy sessions, combined with the film’s long takes, are hypnotically peaceful. Each soldier is given an oxygen mask and a therapy lamp, a tall bar in the shape of an Allen key that stands beside each bed. Each light radiates a color that is supposed to soothe troubled dreams. The transitions from hue to hue are like a pitcher being slowly filled. You practically undergo the sessions yourself as the movie goes on. Everything is at rest but the machines — no sound but white noise. There is a strong air of David Lynch about this movie; surreal and sinister tones sound out over the stillness.
It is a ghost story told in the Nouvelle Vague style, focused on depicting the haunted instead of the ghosts. It moves forward as slowly as Kornél Mundruczó’s Prometheus in Tender Son. Yet it is also prone to silliness and fairly raunchy, deadpan non sequiturs, like the Japanese dada cult classic Funky Forest. The film itself is a series of seemingly unrelated and increasingly inexplicable events that chronicle the crumbling barrier between the soldiers’ dreams and reality. The setting never visibly changes from our world to theirs (except one scene with an amoeba whose size is disquieting to think about), instead we are told by strange emissaries from the other side that the rules of our world no longer apply. What makes this movie stand out particularly as a modern Carnival of Souls is the intense craftsmanship that went into the art direction, in addition to the mysterious approach of the screenplay. The composition of each frame is the product of classical training, not rule breaking. Each camera setup is a tableau, a living still in deep focus.
The plot is not unlike Itt’s diary. It is unafraid to concisely reveal secrets. Ancient kings need soldiers to fight in their spirit war. And everywhere around the old schoolhouse (used as a hospital), the ground is dug up by backhoes. Nature is in constant unrest, stirred up by industry. Cemetery of Splendour is quiet but never silent, and before long, the line dividing real and supernatural becomes as hard to follow as the diary. And then Jen befriends a psychic, Keng, employed by the army to help at the hospital.
Keng is how Itt and Jen can communicate outside of the diary. Itt’s maps lead where they promise — to magic — and a friend who’s a medium is but the tip of the iceberg as far as weirdness is concerned. Temple goddesses appear to give advice with the nonchalance of the denizens of Lynch’s Black Lodge. Exposure to the color therapy lamps wakes the soldiers, but only for a time. Already steeped in exotica and mystery, the town accepts the dream warriors’ temporary return. Soon the whole town is strange, stranger than the soldiers, locked into its destiny with the slumbering warlords.
Or things are totally normal and Jenjira is crazy. The story behind the scenes feels like a folk tale. But those scenes only depict hospital beds with men sleeping beneath colored bars. Waterwheels turning over water. Folks getting a bite to eat together at the local spot. An empty gazebo where people once sat.
It is absolutely top-notch magical realism. I’d like to think that Cemetery of Splendour was made to be mysterious for the same reason the classics (and cult classics) so frequently were. So that people would leave the theaters and go out to their local spots and talk about the real and the unreal while they processed what it was exactly that they just experienced.