‘Cemetery of Splendor’ (‘Rak Ti Khon Kaen’): Cannes Review

A dreamy and leisurely narrative experiment that will play best with Weerasethakul’s dedicated following   

Palme d'Or winner Apichatpong Weerasethakul premiered his latest in the Un Certain Regard sidebar

The films of Apichatpong Weerasethakul have always toed the line between dreams and waking life, so the story of his latest enigmatic feature, Cemetery of Splendor (Rak Ti Khon Kaen), may give admirers of his work a strange sense of déjà vu.

Set in and around a makeshift country hospital accommodating soldiers plagued by a mysterious sleeping sickness, this leisurely paced, semi-experimental narrative features some of the Thai auteur’s trademark surreal beauty, though doesn’t necessarily pack the same punch as movies like Syndromes and a Century or Palme d’Or winner Uncle Boonmee Who May Recall Past Lives. Screening conspicuously out of competition in the Un Certain Regard sidebar, the Cannes premiere should find takers among niche art house distributors already familiar with the writer-director’s distinctive oeuvre.

Clocking in at two hours, and marked by a breezy pace that may prove frustrating for viewers hoping to latch on to a plot (although nobody goes to a Weerasethakul movie for the nonstop action, even if Danny Glover is listed here as a co-producer), the scenario follows the travails of voluntary nurse Jen (regular Jenjira Pongpas Widner) as she tends to a bed-ridden narcoleptic, Itt (Banlop Lomnoi), stricken with the same (tropical?) malady as his permanently snoozing unit.

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We never learn why Itt and the others are fast asleep throughout most of the film, though Jen manages to communicate with the convalescent through the help of a psychic medium, Keng (Jarinpattra Rueangram), who helps family members speak with their sleeping sons. Past lives and ancient ancestors are evoked through conversations that are both cryptic and oddly matter-of-fact, in a work that has the realistic vibe of a documentary but the unearthly qualities of a sustained reverie.

This is nothing new for Weerasethakul, who in previous films has transformed men into tigers and ignored narrative conventions as much as possible, though there are moments here that seem more drawn out than before. A few surprises are nonetheless in store, especially when Itt wakes up and begins a sort-of mother-son relationship with Jen, even if his moments of consciousness are short lived.

As the movie progresses, the barriers between the real world and the dream world begin to dissipate, particularly during a beautifully shot sequence where the changing neon lights that sit by the soldiers’ bedsides start popping up throughout the neighboring city – like an in situ installation spreading outwards from the clinic. Working for the first time with talented DP Diego Garcia (Without), the director builds a naturalistic environment haunted by signs of the netherworld, with a color palette that oscillates between the greens of the jungle and the blue-red glow that guides the sleepers’ days and nights.

Subdued and carefree in its storytelling, Cemetery does eventually provide some clues about Jen and her dedication to soldiers, as well as an underlying mystery involving the hospital grounds, which apparently house the remains of a fallen kingdom. But such details – and a handful of frank sexual moments, including a playfully erect penis hidden beneath the sheets – feel mostly like communicating vessels for Weerasethakul’s extremely Zen approach to cinema, where the real and the intangible are regarded as one and the same. It’s a vision that can make his movies, and especially this one, seem both inscrutable and strangely gratifying, and the experience of watching it is like dreaming with your eyes wide open.

Production companies: Kick the Machine Films, Illuminations Films (Past Lives)
Cast: Jenjira Pongpas Widner, Banlop Lomnoi, Jarinpattra Rueangram, Petcharat Chaiburi
Director, screenwriter: Apichatpong Weerasethakul
Producer: Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Keith Griffiths, Simon Field, Charles de Meaux, Michael Weber, Hans Geissendorfer
Director of photography: Diego Garcia
Production designer: Akekarat Homlaor
Costume designer: Phim U-mari
Editor: Lee Chatemetikool
Art director: Pichan Muangdoung
International sales: The Match Factory

No rating, 121 minutes