Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Deeply Challenging “Cemetery of Splendor”

In my review of Yorgos Lanthimos’ “The Lobster,” I took issues with what I saw the theme of the film being and how Lanthimos develops it. That theme ultimately being that all forms of love are false in that the feelings of tenderness humans feel for one another aren’t genuine but rather a desperate feeling to combat loneliness. What I did praise “The Lobster” for was for its framing and camerawork but this too became a problem when I found the camerawork to supplement certain ideas—love is false—but not others—love is genuine, thus, at least for me, making “The Lobster” feel one-sided and incomplete.

Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s “Cemetery of Splendor” reminds me of “The Lobster,” because execution wise, “Cemetery of Splendor” seems to be the movie “The Lobster” could have been. Here, in Weerasethakul’s film we have some similarities to “The Lobster.” Namely, the use of long-takes, an unconventional narrative, precise framing, and a dream-like atmosphere achieved through the use of silence and coloring, although in this latter regard, “The Lobster” appropriately feels more like a nightmare.

The specific reason why I’m comparing “Cemetery of Splendor” to “The Lobster” is, because I think Weerasethakul uses similar tools as Lanthimos, but unlike Lanthimos, Weerasethakul leaves room for interpretation.

“Cemetery of Splendor” is about a group of soldiers who are stricken with an illness where they suddenly fall asleep and stay comatose. They might awaken, but these periods of consciousness are brief. The heroine of the film is Jenjira (Jenjira Pongpas), a housewife and volunteer nurse who decides to look over the soldier Itt (Banlop Lomnoi), because he has no family or friends to take care of him.

From time to time, Itt awakens and spends time with Jenjira discussing various topics; what food they like to eat, Jenjira’s American husband, the sickness, etc. There’s also a slight mystery as to what might be the cause of the illness, but Weerasethakul shoots this down rather quickly by providing an equally mythical answer. Two women visit Jenjira and reveal themselves to be the sisterly spirits of two princesses from long ago. The clinic where the soldiers reside in is actually built on top of an ancient battleground where the two local kings did battle. Now, the fallen spirits of the warriors use the energy of the present day soldiers in order to continue their battle. Whether or not you believe that answer is up to you. Once again, there’s room for interpretation.

Take a more direct example concerning Jenjira’s American husband, Richard (Richard Abramson). When Itt awakens, and he learns that Jenjira has an American husband, he can’t help but continuously ask her questions concerning Richard. Itt’s curious tone, however, takes on a bit of a mean-spirited nature. He begins to make fun of Richard because of his American identity. While Jenjira does politely ask him to stop, she’s not too forth about it almost as if she is humored by Itt’s jokes.

I propose that Itt’s attitude towards Richard can be seen as being evidence for “Cemetery of Splendor” displaying an anti-American attitude. By making fun of Richard, because he’s American, Itt is also saying that Jenjira’s husband should perhaps be someone within their own nationality—Thai.

But because there’s room for interpretation, Weerasethakul doesn’t leave it at that. In another scene, Jenjira is praying to the gods for all the good in her life; one of the things she is grateful for is Richard’s presence in her life. Throughout the film, we learn the exact nature of Jenjira and Richard’s relationship. They met online and after falling in love, Richard sold all his things, and despite not being to communicate with one another too well due to language barriers, moved to Thailand in order to be with Jenjira. Unlike how Lanthimos depicts affection, Jenjira’s love for Richard is real. Furthermore, her love for Richard transcends that racial barrier, thus I see “Cemetery of Splendor” as not necessarily wholly advocating a pro or anti American attitude.

Now, however, I’d like to make a bolder claim. I read “Cemetery of Splendor” as being about a fusion of the past and modernity. Consequently, Weerasethakul endows the clinic and the surrounding area with a dream-like atmosphere, because this fusion is other-worldly, and I mean that literally. Towards the end of “Cemetery of Splendor,” the past and present literally come together. Possessed by a soldier, a medium walks through the present village, but simultaneously she occupies another space: “This is the golden bathroom,” she says, as she walks into an enclosure of trees.

Another scene earlier in the film makes this fusion physically literal. Weerasethakul films the nightly activities of the citizens and ends the series of long-takes with a shot of two escalators; they occupy a bright neon-lit building, and what Weerasethakul does here is slowly impose another image on top of this one. Specifically, a shot of the soldiers sleeping in their beds, flanked by neon-lit tubes that are supposed to help them sleep and have better dreams.

Eventually, as the first image fades, and the second comes into the fore, they combine. Here, the escalators—perhaps occupying a mall—is a symbol of modernity and conversely, the sleeping soldiers recall the past of the ancient royalty which used to occupy the space.

“Cemetery of Splendor” is a difficult film in that it’s not easy to analyze. Admittedly then, I haven’t been able to work the consequences of this argument. What exactly is Weerasethakul saying about the fusion of the past and modernity? I don’t quite think it’s the argument I posed in my analysis of Chris Marker’s “Sans Soleil,” where I discussed how in that film, Marker showed how the present becomes filtered and understood through a retrospective lens of the past.

Perhaps the film is about the dangers of modernity in that it destroys the past. When Jenjira tells two other nurses at the clinic that she was approached by the ghosts of the princesses, she is laughed at; people don’t seem to believe that the clinic is truly built over a burial ground. Continuing on, we’re never quite sure that the tubes, which are supposed to help the soldiers sleep and eventually help them awaken, ever work. What does make a stronger case for helping the grieving families and ailing soldiers is the presence of the medium, who uses her powers to deliver messages. The presence of the medium, and the modern technology can also be seen as this fusion of the past and present.

Ultimately, I don’t think Weerasethakul is advocating for a return to the past or for a complete embrace of the present but the fusion of the two. He shows a keen understanding in how modern advances can be helpful. One scene in the film is devoted to showing the clinic’s doctor helping local citizens. When a patient is diagnosed with having worms due to eating raw meat/fish, the doctor tells him he needs to go to a “real” hospital, because they’re not properly equipped. Mediums may be able to help spirits, but they can’t cure worms.

 

 

 

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