Lee (and probably only Lee, ever) reviews Thai film “Cemetery of Splendour”.
“Cemetery of Splendour”, a Thai film from director Apichatpong Weerasethakul, was not made for me. It was also likely not made for you. Not unless you are the purest of film students, the kind that truly marvels in the cinematic art form and finds endless pleasure simply in its use, but even then, this film might not be for you. You might be the exact person this film does not want to appeal to: those with a thinking brain. For this movie is an assault on those who try to read between lines and use their heads to make stories where there are none. If you are thinking about this movie you are fundamentally missing one of its many, many comments; the purer, dreaming mind tells the better story.
At least, that’s something I tried to grasp to. I realised early on that the trance had failed; I could not stop analysing. Here we have sleeping soldiers and a sleeping country, begging the world to let it keep sleeping and I could not help but absorb every moment and scene in incredible detail. Something that pays in spades when you notice the incredibly clever use of mise en scene to juxtapose monsters of the past with children of the future, or culture and history vs. foreign lights and cameraphones, or pictures of politicians hanging above the library books. You start to meld your own stories over the intended and unintended, and in my opinion, it was necessary. When you’re given not a straight narrative, but a dictionary of foreign concepts and hidden messages, it’s debatable whether you’ll gain more reading A-Z over the space of a lifetime or just making a game of Ad Libs out of finding silly words at random. At least one option’s a game.
Images go from livid with forced imagery – a Thai horror film, the lights from what keep the soldiers dreaming sweetly meshing with the fans of what might still be a cinema (so we are the sleeping sick?), a snapshot of the culture, an emotional massage of a lame leg and devastating football amongst the molehills – to simple, peaceful, often dull imagery of chickens, trees, rural life, exercise, water mills of what purpose I can’t seem to process, a man shitting in the woods, etc. There will be studies, and breakdowns, and there will be answers by admission or admittance; for even keen-eyed critics however, it’ll be a long walk of uncertainty.
If it all still sounds appealing (if you can make sense of it, because concretely writing about the ethereal and metaphorical tends not to translate tone with any dignity), this movie still might not be for you. “Cemetery of Splendour” is riddled with cultural insights that just plain might not mean anything to those not living in Thailand. There are numerous veiled commentaries on Thailand and its current position, but without a contextual understanding of the country, it might all seem moot. Is Thailand under threat from modernity, or is that too obvious? Perhaps it’s under threat from the old, the dreamers, the soldiers, the children? Maybe everyone’s at fault. Surely the gods that steal the souls of these sleeping men for their eternal war cannot be on the side of good? Unless that balance is all there is, in which case, maybe pointing fingers is the problem, and once again, it seems that the critical mind is to blame.
Straightforwardly, I appreciate this film. I was never aware there were still so many images my mind was not prepared to see, and I appreciate seeing them. I appreciate its intention, and its camerawork most of all. Something between documentary and fiction; the clever minimalism of the frames to create hundreds of individual tableaus aides its picturebook aesthetic. The slow, gentle mood perfectly captures a warm dream, and cleverly transfers its commentary on dreaming from character to viewer.
Personally, however, I will likely never watch this film again. Partially because I feel it will stick with me clearly for a long time, and partially because I feel unwelcome. “Cemetery of Splendour” comes with a surprisingly negative underbelly, as most analogy-driven commentaries go. Whether we’re at fault, or foreigners are at fault, or nobody is at fault; the mind is left to question why the quiet drama just can’t go right for these people. There’s sadness, and it demands praise for its ability to command the power of tone alone to weave a million narratives, but to fall utterly in love with it requires some spiritual connection that either grabs you or doesn’t. For me, it didn’t. It kept me watching, even enjoying, and definitely questioning, but never longing. Maybe time will change that and I’ll pang for it all again; I doubt it.
As for you, it is much safer to suggest you don’t see it. It’s not for you. But if you are feeling incredibly adventurous; commit. See this in a cinema, alone, or somewhere calm with headphones. Detach from people for a while. Expect absolutely nothing because you’ll likely spend two hours of your life gaining nothing particularly concrete, and if something spiritual grabs you, then you’ll be all the more grateful not to have to worry about what I thought or what someone beside you is thinking.