Cemetery of Splendour (2015)

Cemetery of Splendour [Rak ti Khon Kaen] might be the final feature film made by queer director Apichatpong Weerasethakulin in his home country of Thailand, as it has become increasingly difficult for him to work effectively under the local military junta.

The central setting for this film is an old school which has been converted into a hospital for soldiers who have succumbed to some form of sleeping sickness. Despite its designation as a hospital, medical staff are notably absent. The nurse in charge of the ward is often on hand, but the only time a doctor is seen in the vicinity is through the doorway, as the nurse chases after him for a missing signature. Another doctor appears for a single scene acting as a GP for some of the locals on unrelated issues, but is very little use since he apparently only has access to medication for children (because of the building’s former status as a school?). A young female psychic is frequently on hand, acting as a conduit for the soldier’s relatives, who ask questions about mundane topics such as their colour preference for new kitchen tiles. The only sign of anything even approaching a treatment is when a man installs a series of glowing rods next to each bed, which will supposedly improve the quality of the soldiers’ sleep.

Although that description might suggest a film packed with incident, it’s actually a very slowly paced film. Jenjira is a middle-aged woman who volunteers to sit with one of the soldiers every day, choosing the bed located in the same spot she used to sit when she was a schoolteacher. The film is thoroughly grounded in the mundane realities of modern life in Thailand. The first sounds heard in the film are the sounds of nature, which appear over the blackness of the opening credits and are present throughout the film (dropping out only for a brief sequence at the midpoint). These sounds are joined by the noise of digging equipment – these harsher sounds are less constant, but there are frequent reminders throughout the film of the continued digging. The film is almost entirely composed of extended static shots which simply observe what is going on in any given scene, such as an ordinary conversation or a scene of nothing happening at all. The rare moments when the camera does move attain a significance that might otherwise be lost.

The sound design is particularly important in anchoring the viewer to a perception of ordinary everyday life, as there are unexpected intrusions of the more unusual. A random stranger who shares some of Jenjira’s fruit thanks her for the offerings. She soon reveals that she and her sister are the divine princesses Jenjira has honoured at a shrine, providing accurate details of her offerings to allay any doubts. She tells Jenjira that the school was built on top of an ancient palace and that the gods are drawing on the essence of the sleeping soldiers to help them fight their battles. Late in the film, during an extended sequence when Itt is occupying the psychic’s body and conducting Jenjira on a tour through the woods of an unseen palace, there is a shot of the blue expanse of the sky, across which slowly inches an unexplained amoeba-like blob, before cutting to a view of the pagoda where Itt’s physical form should be, but isn’t.

A scene in a cinema marks the halfway point of the film, as we see the trailer for unreleased Thai horror film The Iron Coffin Killer (possibly banned due to government censorship, a fate which would also befall Cemetery of Splendour). This is the only point in the film at which the background sounds of nature cut out entirely. This is followed by the only night-time scenes of the entire film, most notably a shot focusing on the rotating ceiling fans in the hospital ward, bathed in the shifting glow of colours from the rods beside the soldiers’ beds, which have begun to cycle through the full spectrum of colours rather than the simple alternation of green and blue seen earlier. This broadening of the spectrum continues to be seen in the ward from this point and there is a sense that a threshold has been passed.

I’ve described various aspects of Cemetery of Splendour, but these descriptions can’t adequately explain the experience of watching the film. I’ve focused on the unusual elements, but that provides a false sense of the film, as it is very much engaged in creating the feel of a mundane everyday life in which not much happens. Its pace and focus will be off-putting to many, and watching it solely for the moments I’ve focused on would be likely to lead to disappointment. But if you have the time and patience to simply sit and absorb the film for 2 hours, there are rewards to be found, and you may find it grows in your mind after viewing.

One thought on “Cemetery of Splendour (2015)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s