by Jason Suzuki
In a recent interview Weerasethakul has stated that Cemetery of Splendour will be the last film he makes in his homeland of Thailand. Not counting the hour long Mekong Hotel (he doesn't), this is his first feature film since 2010's Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives. He remains busy with other mediums and regularly does art installations/galleries, but with his latest film it is a shame the political situation of Thailand has caused him to feel unsafe to show the film let alone make any more. In light of this, Cemetery of Splendour is a fitting departure for its filmmaker about to embark on the next chapter of his contribution to cinema. But even if you don't know this, as I didn't when seeing the film, Cemetery of Splendour is yet another unique and playful story about current events and past histories going back centuries, all related to the experience of one woman.
Jen (Jenjira Pongpas) is a volunteer at a temporary clinic formed at the school she went to as a child. She is a middle-aged housewife who uses forearm crutches to get around. The clinic is filled with soldiers who have been inflicted with a mysterious sleeping sickness/epidemic. A handsome soldier, Itt (Banlop Lomnoi), with no family visitors catches the eye of Jen. Ways she connects with the sleeping Itt are through his diary and with the help of a fellow volunteer with psychic powers. From here Jen experiences a sort of awakening to her past through conscious contemplation and what may be hallucination.
As usual Weerasethakul maintains his playful side, the film is whimsical and never once feels a chore to finish. The nurses stop their conversation to joke about a sleeping soldier's erection, one of them pressing it down to let it fling back up. The fantasy elements of this film are handled in a much different way than other films like Tropical Malady and Uncle Boonmee. The fantasy of the story is depicted in a way to make it indistinguishable from the ordinary. Jen is visited by the ghosts of two princesses, wearing no make up and dressed in street clothes. All we have to go on is how they introduce themselves as spirits. This decisions allows the focus to remain on Jen's experience and in a way makes the fantasy world something special and linked with the everyday.
To an outsider there are political undertones that speak loudly, and will probably be much more for someone familiar with the situation in Thailand. The school housing the makeshift hospital for the sleeping soldiers was built on an army grave site. According to the sister spirits Jen encounters, the spirits of the generals are using the living soldiers' energy to continue waging their war in the spirit world. In tradition with the best sci-fi/fantasy, Weerasethakul uses the genre for allegory. But Weerasethakul's insistent focus on the character of Jen allows the film to speak to different things for an audience who may not be interested in these aspects to the film. Because of that this is a much more straightforward film than previous efforts and appears to be his most personal (he even uses his childhood hometown for the setting).
Sleeping soldiers, armies from past wars possibly the cause of the epidemic of narcolepsy, it's easy to see why this might rub the military run government the wrong way. The 2014 coup has left who is arguably the most successful Thai director to leave his home country. But as with Hou Hsiao-Hsien's Cafe Lumiere, even a change of setting will not stop a filmmaker constantly concerned with their homeland's history from continuing to derive films from it.