Cemetery of Splendor has layers upon layers of meaning, and each viewer will construct her own meaning.
Every Apichatpong Weerasethakul film shares a few features. Each is an exploration of a major theme of cinema history. Each combines, in myriad ways, fantasy with reality. Each is also a reflection of Thai history, folklore and religion. Cemetery of Splendor, Weerasethakul’s 2015 effort, is no exception. Its classic film topic is dreams and their relation – or lack thereof – to waking life. It is also his most overtly political film. But Cemetery of Splendor is also true to a fourth element of every previous Weerasethakul work: it is oblique, indirect and deliberately paced.
At the center of Cemetery of Splendor’s plot is a school repurposed as an emergency hospital for a platoon of Thai soldiers suffering from a strange sleeping sickness. Each soldier is hooked up to various tubes of liquid, which change colors among an array of extra-bright hues depending on the soldier’s mental state. The mental states of the soldiers are effected by their dreams. Crucially, the colors in the tubes alter simultaneously among the entire platoon, suggesting that the troops are dreaming collectively. It is a shared dream, just as it is a shared sleeping sickness.
There are hundreds of films about dreams, but Cemetery of Splendor most immediately evokes Inception. Both have characters dreaming in unison. Both take the viewer into the dreams being shared. That is where the similarities end, however, as Nolan’s film is fast-paced with many thriller genre tropes but Weerasethakul’s remains slow, aloof and always at arm’s length. In this way, it resembles the most widely acclaimed dream film in the canon, David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive. Lynch’s film is so obtuse and indirect that it has spawned a relative cottage industry of attempts to parse it. Of course, there are plenty of message boards arguing over the ultimate meaning of Inception, too. Not so with Cemetery of Splendor, though that probably has more to do with Weerasethakul not being widely seen by the US public than it does any feeling that the film is easy to understand. In other words, like other recent “dream films,” Cemetery of Splendor has layers upon layers of meaning, and each viewer will construct her own meaning.
Exacerbating the difficulty of coming to grips with the narrative of Cemetery of Splendor, at least for US viewers, is the film’s dependence on Thai history and folklore. The soldiers sharing a communal dream are dreaming of fighting an ancient battle and their mystery illness is explained by the village school being located on the site of an ancient cemetery. This makes Cemetery of Splendor – like so many other Weerasethakul films – a ghost story, but in a Thai sense more than a Western European/North American one. Much of the significance of these various plot points requires at least a passing familiarity with Southeast Asian culture, which is both one of the joys and one of the frustrations of following the director’s work.
The ghost story element is also Weerasethakul’s most direct political messaging to date; it is a rather bald critique of a highly repressive military dictatorship that has ruled Thailand for most of the director’s adult life. Weerasethakul’s entire career has been precariously balanced on the line between government-approved and trouble with the censors. He has, so far, avoided the fate of Jafar Panahi, whose films are much more overt in their political messaging, but here he is treading dangerously close to the line of what his government will find acceptable.
His frustration with the Thai government aside, Cemetery of Splendor looks much like Weerasethakul’s prior films. Aesthetically, he has refined his style to the point that each frame of this film is unmistakably his: sleepy camera movements shifting from still exterior shots to spectral interior “action” scenes. The pace is soporific, a sort of forced rural, Buddhist rhythm that obligates the viewer to take it easy and really inhabit the film. The sound design is impeccable and brings viewers into the scenes. In short, then, Cemetery of Splendor is beautiful to see and hear, imbricated deeply into cinematic history and an important act of political resistance to an oppressive governing regime. For fans of Weerasethakul, it is yet another standout effort by the director.