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MIFF 2015: Cemetery of Splendour

Silence and tranquillity are powerful things, more so than noise and turbulence. Stillness allows us to better absorb the emotional undercurrents running beneath any given situation, and convey any number of compelling messages. In cinema this is no different. How audible elements are (or aren’t) used in certain films drastically impacts how audiences engage with what they see. In these types of films, what’s not included is often just as significant as what is.

Serene, measured and almost completely devoid of non-diegetic sound, Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s contemplative Cemetery of Splendour is that type of film. Conversation is sparse and intermittent, often subservient to the faint reverberations of wind, birds and insects heard in the background of every scene. The composure and space between dialogue is crucial, allowing us extra time to process what is a confusing, but deeply poignant experience.

Cemetery of Splendour is Weerasethakul’s first project since Mekong Hotel in 2012, and first full-length feature since 2010’s Palme d'Or-winning Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives. The film tracks Jen (Jenjira Pongpas), a volunteer nurse at a mysterious rural hospital housing comatose soldiers suffering from troubled dreams. Jen develops friendships with a recovering soldier named Itt (Banlop Lomnoi) and fellow nurse Keng (Jarinpattra Rueangram), a psychic who mediates messages between the resting soldiers and their loved ones. The hospital’s staff members believe the human mind and spirit to be active at all times, even in sleep and death.

Like most of Weerasethakul’s work, Cemetery of Splendour needs a real investment of attention. It’s clear with how the camera lingers on every shot, the vast majority of narrative structure is to be pieced together by viewers. Peppered with proverbs and metaphors, everything about it is slow, drawn-out and calculated.

“Amongst humans the most brilliant of those are disciplined,” reads a scroll found by Jen in the hospital basement. It’s an objective, almost self-indulgent statement, and one which mirrors Weerasethakul’s direction of his latest effort. Meticulously planned, each frame, discussion and movement augments the film’s fixation with human cognizance, blurring the margins between fantasy and reality.

Visually gorgeous, Cemetery of Splendour demands to be seen in the cinema. Colour palates morph and shift within takes, while in one particular shot the embedding of a microorganism against an unblemished cerulean sky is stunningly surreal. The film’s aesthetic is by far its strongest feature; its vivid insignia and fluorescent pigments lighting it up in more ways than one.

Yet what it all means is left unclear. Weerasethakul’s films eschew the rules of conventionality, eliciting a sense of autonomy – a statement anyone familiar with his works will surely agree with. Mystery is everywhere in Cemetery of Splendour, inundated in the involvements of visuals, characters, and the very ground on which they all transpire. Recurring symbols of bilateralism, spinning wheels and livestock percolate into a viscous aggregate of different images, ideas and moods. Brooding and waiflike, they breed a very visceral sense of wonder, and watching Weerasethakul weave such a cryptic narrative is fantastically enjoyable. But like any puzzle, the real fun comes in figuring it all out for yourself.

To view any Weerasethakul picture is to drift off into a fantasy world. In this instance, it is one ambiguous and impressive, assimilating a playful exercise in cinematic poetry. Although like gentle prose, it caters to a very specific audience. Some will marvel at its peaceful mysticism, others will abhor its dreariness. It is ironic that a film contending that the mind is always awake sent a number of its viewers to sleep in its first festival screening. But taking into account whatever anagoge they’d processed before dozing off, their dreams would have been anything but troubling.

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