By Tanner Tafelski
Joe shows his claws. His languid Cemetery of Splendour, his first feature since Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, is a quiet scream. It’s a comment on Western society’s tainting influence on Thailand, on its history. It’s not for nothing that Weerasethakul sets Splendour in and around a hospital (and former school and, before that, a cemetery for kings) where sickness is ever present.
In this rural, ramshackle hospital, Jen, volunteers, tending to the soldiers resting on cots. What ails them? The movie never tells, but probably the ills of contemporary life. Neon glow tubes, which come from the Americans and their wars in the Middle East, and which gradually change colors, stick out beside their beds. The soldiers look unnatural, as if they were simply hibernating.
One of these soldiers, Itt, Jen nurses the most. Weerasethakul shoots them in two shots, he lying supine while she sits at his bedside. If he’s not asleep, they spend nights out eating street food, lounging about a nearby lake, or in one instance, catching a film at a multiplex. This last case is one of many exquisite moments in the film, one that’s reminiscent of Tsai Ming-liang’s Good Bye, Dragon Inn. Weerasethakul drops you in the theater. A disorienting shot, we see the back of Jen and Itt’s head as well as the lower portion of the screen. Weerasethakul cuts to a planimetric view, the front side of the moviegoers. From a high angle, we see Itt, sleeping, carried out of the screening followed by a dazzling superimposition of the multiplex’s labyrinthine chrome, metallic escalators and the hospital beds.
Disquieting moments like these happen steadily throughout Splendour, giving the film a feel of being suspended in that gray state between wakefulness and sleep. There are strange things afoot; after praying to a pair of princesses at a shrine, they appear before Jen in human form during her lunch break. They dispense this little bit of advice: none of the men she’s helping will get any better. Later, Jen walks through a forest that used to be a grand hall replete with a prince’s room. “I have seen you dream,” Jen tells Itt at one point. Weerasethakul has made a film where you see Thailand, not only of the present, but also of the past, of history. The film is a palimpsest of memories lost and found.
The present state of Thailand, however, doesn’t look so good. Around Jen and Itt, near the hospital, a noisy diesel-fueled power shovel tears up the land, preparing for the development of some capitalist endeavor, perhaps a hotel? Amidst the digging, kids play soccer on mounds and in craters of dirt of a former soccer field, leading to one of the most haunting reaction shots in recent memory, one that recalls another Tsai film, Stray Dogs. I left the theater with these Black Sabbath lyrics in my head: “Is this the end of the beginning, or the beginning of the end?”.
Directed by Apichatpong Weerasethakul
Thailand/??United Kingdom/??France/??Germany/??Malaysia, 2015