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Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Cemetery of Splendour

Cemetery of Splendour is a 2015 film by Apichatpong Weerasethakul. It is the second film of his I've seen, after the Palm D'Or winning Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives. Like that film, it is a somewhat hallucinatory piece about people slipping between life and death, but it is more comprehensible and even, at times, funny.

Be forewarned, it is not a fast-paced film. It should be viewed fully rested. Not only does it move at a languid pace--there are long lingering scenes of someone giving someone else a sponge bath, someone relieving themselves, and so on, but at its center are Thai soldiers who have some sort of sleeping sickness. They lie dormant in a small hospital that was once a schoolhouse, and later we learn that it is on top of the burial place of kings who use the soldiers' essence to fight their battles.

Most of the film is told from the point of view of Jenjira, a middle-aged woman and volunteer at the hospital. She forms an attachment to one soldier, Itt, who occasionally does awaken, only to pass out in narcoleptic episodes, to be carried home and back to his bed (it becomes a kind of running gag). She is married to an American man, not her first husband. "I want to have a European husband," she complains to Itt one night. "American men don't have enough money. Europeans are living the American dream."

Also tending to the soldiers is a psychic, a young woman who has helped the police. She is able to contact the soldiers who are sleeping, and in the climax of the film, Itt inhabits her and takes Jenjira on a tour of a palace that was once on the grounds.

I was happy to see this film on DVD, when I could stop and watch it in chunks. I got drowsy and fell asleep once, when a man was teaching the staff of the hospital how to let their energy go, not something helpful to a movie audience. But despite it's non-Western pace, there is a lot to appreciate here, especially the humor. Jenjira visits a shrine to two Laotian princesses. She is later visited by them, who thank her and tell her they are dead. Jenjira tells her a nurse that they look great without makeup, and the nurse says, "Well, you have to be dead to get that look."

Another time, a soldier gets an erection that pokes a tent in his blanket. The psychic, who has never been with a man, looks at it and asks Jenjira if she wants to touch it. "I've touched enough penises in my life," she says, and the psychic pressed down on it, only to see it pop back up again. "Amazing," she says.

As with Uncle Boonmee, this would be best appreciated by those with an understanding of Thai culture. There are many mentions of different regions of Thailand (apparently the South, like the United States, is a different place entirely). In Buddhist culture, things just don't stay dead, but unlike the West, it does not mean it's a horror film.

Apichatpong's films are the only Thai films I've ever seen (I think), but they are not typical of Thai cinema. In one scene a character watches a trailer for a lurid, violent supernatural film. I kind of relaxed. Glad to know some things are the same all over the world.

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