Directed by Apichatpong Weerasethakul
All of time unfolds at once in Cemetery of Splendor, or at least you get that impression. The story follows Jen, a volunteer nurse in a displaced hospital, now located in what was once a childhood classroom of hers. The space is temporary, with construction well underway just outside the window, soon to take over and transform the environment as a whole and send them off somewhere else. She’s handicapped, her right leg dramatically shorter than her left, and she has a calm, unwavering belief in other worlds and spirits.
Jen’s spirituality, as well as the spirituality of those around her, is quiet and unremarkable but perhaps remarkable because of that unremarkability. She helps care for soldiers who are apparently comatose, though no one knows why. One of the other volunteers is a young woman who can commune with the dead, but this is just one of her responsibilities, like mopping the floor. It is something others marvel at but only in the way you marvel at someone fluent in another language, not someone who can levitate.
Later Jen will meet two girls who claim to be the goddesses of an altar at which Jen worships. They tell her that they look different without their makeup on, and soon Jen bows down to them, thanking them for her good fortune. They will calmly tell her that they themselves are dead and that the soldiers for whom she cares are asleep because they are being used to fight a battle between kings which took place (and is taking place) years ago in that very spot.
None of this is challenged, just accepted at face value. Such sincerity of thought, no matter how outlandish (at least to a Western perspective), feels incredibly pure because, well I don’t know, it just is. If one character believes something different than you or me, it carries a certain weight, with us expecting it to be the source of conflict within the story. When every character believes that thing it reduces conflict and is instead just something there not to produce conflict but to be observed.
Cemetery of Splendor is so quiet and still. I love these types of films, though I can’t pretend I don’t get fidgety at times. The camera is almost always static, even framing an absence of action, just a fan spinning or a light slowly changing color. Because we are trained to look at the movie screen and anticipate action, we continue to anticipate action of some sort even when none occurs. Using that revved up engine of a mind we start to see things, even supernatural things, in moments and frames that are otherwise unspectacular.
This gives the film a surreal sort of quality, with us able to project onto the simplest images and movements (no matter how repetitive), a personality. It feels like we are watching something unfold before our eyes, the fingerprints of some sort of divine, certainly abstract force. And thus we see things perhaps the way Jen sees them, the smallest details amounting to something a little bigger.
Within the story Jen will develop a relationship with one of her sleeping patients, a man named Itt. She finds and becomes interested in a notebook of his writings and drawings, and soon he wakes up. They will figure each other out like two toddlers figuring out the laws of physics around them. Occasionally he will fall back asleep, even mid conversation, but there is an understanding that he’s simply gone off to war in another time and space, soon to be back.
The film’s extended, silent climax occurs between Jen and a sleeping Itt through the help of the medium from before. She channels Itt’s spirit, and together they walk through a meadow which he sees as a lavish palace, one that once stood there and, depending on your theories of time, may once be erected there again.
They communicate thusly through time, hundreds or thousands of years. The end of the film will show Jen sitting on a bench, her eyes almost frighteningly wide, staring at the scarred grounds of the imminent new construction. It’s safe to assume she’s seeing something we can’t, tuned into a higher level of being, able to see everything that is and once was. By her expression, however, it might seem like this new state of being has overwhelmed her, for better or worse.
Up Next: Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959), The Beach Bum (2019), Selma (2014)