Watching Cemetery of Splendour, a feeling of bliss and peace began to wash over me. It’s a special kind of bliss that only the cinema is capable of producing, that wonderful dark room, populated with a handful of fellow travellers, and one brightly lit wall. The outside world begins to drop away, irrelevant, like a minor daily frustration. It’s difficult to describe Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s latest film (or for short, ‘Joe’), just as it’s difficult to describe all of his films. Here, we have a former elementary school turned into makeshift hospital. Its patients are soldiers stationed nearby, who have been afflicted with a strange sleeping disorder and now lie near-comatose in beds for days at a time, awaking only to eat and answer nature’s calls. Jen, an elderly lady with one leg shorter than the other, turns up to volunteer at the hospital. She begins a friendship with one of the soldiers, Itt, going for picnics and walks whenever he is awake, although he often drops off midway through. There’s also a woman with psychic powers, and a visitation from two ancient Laotian princesses who explain that the mass sleeping is because the hospital was built upon an ancient palace. The kings buried in that palace have continued to fight their long-over wars, requiring the souls of the sleeping soldiers to raise their dormant armies.
Joe belongs in that handful of directors who practice what I like to call “drone cinema”, alongside such luminaries as Andrei Tarkovsky, Béla Tarr and Nuri Bilge Ceylan, although Joe is much more light-hearted and sweetly humorous. The mood in Cemetery of Splendour is sleepy, much like that of the soldiers, but the dreams are nourishing. The camera is still as can be, with single takes running for several minutes in one static position, characters gently entering and exiting scenes at a relaxed pace. On the few occasions the camera does move, it looks surreal, bizarre, like the earth splitting apart into cracks. There are even some sex jokes, like Jen and two companions talking about the erection of a sleeping soldier, pushing his penis down then having it spring back up again (always a great way to pass the time).
The boundaries between the physical world and the spiritual world in Cemetery of Splendour are constantly re-aligning, even disappearing. Laotian princesses are one thing, but the most moving and surreal sequence in the entire film comes towards the end, when Itt once again falls asleep mid-picnic. Our psychic friend comes along and begins to channel his mind through herself, so that Jen and Itt may continue their conversation. They walk through the park, which Itt perceives as part of the ancient underground palace, with low-hanging ceilings, cobwebs, and immaculate decorations physically present but not physically visible. Life bleeds together, one experience, one vision, on top of another, Jen and Itt seemingly experiencing both worlds and both visions at once. That Joe achieves this effect convincingly through only dialogue and basic mise-en-scene is nothing short of serenity.
According to some sources and Joe himself, there is a political allegory to Cemetery of Splendour. Thailand being a country with fairly strict censorship laws and constant political upheaval, it is difficult to see what exactly the political allegory is, and I can only assume it’s much more clear to those familiar with Thai politics and actual Thai audiences. It does not matter. Joe has here achieved something more, and just as important. To those with an open and patient mind, there is a universality to Cemetery of Splendour, a Zen-like peace and tranquillity, countenanced with great poetry and focus. It’s an incredible experience.