There’s no middle ground with Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s films: You’re either on their poetic, dreamlike wavelength, or you’re not. In his finest movies (Syndromes and a Century, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives), the terror and beauty of the everyday gets transmuted into something mystical—his movies can be deliberate and realistic, and yet also quite fantastical, with no clear demarcation between the two plains. Some find Weerasethakul’s movies baffling, slow, tedious. But approach them in the right headspace, and they can be transformative.
His latest, Cemetery of Splendor, will require multiple viewings—just as all his films do—so that its thick fog of images, ideas and moods can be properly digested. But at this stage, it seems apparent that Weerasethakul has repeated some themes and some visual tricks from previous films. And it’s also clear that it doesn’t much matter: This emotional/philosophical terrain is his and his alone, and he’s still finding fresh ways to explore it.
As is often the case with Weerasethakul’s films, Cemetery of Splendor doesn’t have a plot so much as it has a catalogue of things that happen, or are at least imagined or dreamed. The film starts off straightforwardly enough: An elderly woman named Jenjira (Jenjira Pongpas Widner) visits a clinic populated with comatose young soldiers. Inexplicably, they seem to have all been stricken by a sleeping sickness that leaves them bedridden. Jenjira starts caring for one particular soldier, Itt (Banlop Lomnoi), who never has anyone visit him. At the same time, she strikes up a friendship with a medium (Jarinpattra Rueangram) who helps concerned loved ones connect with the unconscious soldiers.
That’s a general idea of what gets Cemetery of Splendor going, but Weerasethakul soon has more mysterious plans in mind. In the writer-director’s earlier works, characters have turned into animals and the spirits of the dead have visited their living relatives. Playful but also transfixing, Weerasethakul’s movies give off a sense of freedom, that the rules of conventional narratives don’t apply. In Cemetery of Splendor, the odd wrinkles include the discovery that the clinic rests on the grounds of a former kingdom, which allows different eras of individuals to communicate at the same time. But because Weerasethakul always keeps his stories deceptively unadorned, the fantasy elements feel all the more uncanny, the commonplace suddenly being flecked with magic.
Eventually, Jenjira starts bonding with the revived Itt, and their conversations touch on everything from the cultural divides between America and Europe to the future of Thailand. There’s a weightiness to the content of their talks, but also a wistfulness, a feeling that these questions about life and death aren’t, well, a matter of life-and-death. For all its oblique passages and arresting images—not to mention a random erection joke—Cemetery of Splendor couldn’t be clearer in its Zen-like acceptance that there are some things about this life that we will never know. Weerasethakul has made a career out of this realization, and once again he’s crafted a film that’s astonishingly tranquil and exceedingly restorative. Nobody in current cinema ponders the big issues with such a warm, happy shrug.
But that carefree tone shouldn’t be confused with lazy or simple filmmaking. Cemetery of Splendor may be his most visually beautiful achievement, working with cinematographer Diego García to play with light and colors in such a way that it appears that civilization itself is about to undergo a makeover. (For no reason, a mall visited by Jenjira is suddenly lit up with different neon lights. And the clinic features fluorescent bulbs that go from red to white to green, without warning.) Weerasethakul offers no explanations, creating an effect that jumps between intoxicating and ominous. Life is like that in his movies, and it’s up to us to decide which way we’ll interpret it.
Performances rarely stand out in a Weerasethakul film, instead becoming part of the overall flow of his images and moods. Pongpas Widner, a veteran of his movies, embodies a lifetime of sadness and experience, perhaps representing the memories of a past that can’t always be reclaimed. As its title suggests, Cemetery of Splendor targets specific confluences: between the past and the future, the young and the old, the physical world and the spiritual realm. But above all, it’s a movie about endless possibility. To watch Cemetery of Splendor is to witness one of our finest filmmakers putting a spell on us. I can’t say what everything in this elliptical movie means. But I sure know how it feels—and it feels astonishing.
Director: Apichatpong Weerasethakul
Writer: Apichatpong Weerasethakul
Starring: Jenjira Pongpas Widner, Banlop Lomnoi, Jarinpattra Rueangram
Release Date: Screening in Un Certain Regard at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival
Tim Grierson is chief film critic for Paste and the vice president of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter.