“Tarkovsky for me is the greatest (director), the one who invented a new language, true to the nature of film, as it captures life as a reflection, life as a dream.”
Those are the words of Ingmar Bergman and he was right about Tarkovsky and I don’t think any director has really come close to capturing life as a dream on film – except Apichatpong Weerasethakul. If someone were to ask me to describe the pace of a Tarkovsky film, I would say, hmm, “slow.” But that’s not the word I would use to describe a Weerasethakul film – his films are enchanting, mesmerizing, and feel almost like a reverie. His style, his tone, his pacing, it’s unique enough that comparing him to Tarkovsky would be a fruitless exercise. His cinema is unique in its own way and that makes him one of the best, most interesting filmmakers around today, and Cemetery of Splendor may just be his best work to date.
There are many similarities between this film and one of his previous films, Syndromes and a Century, which was also a great film and to me his best (before this one) – the hospital setting, the people working out, etc., but that’s where the comparison ends. Weerasethakul starts off with an interesting premise – soldiers in a rural area contract some sort of sleeping sickness and are placed in a temporary hospital that has just been opened in what used to be an elementary school many years ago. From there, as is usually the case with every Weerasethakul, the film eschews any resemblance, however remote, to narrative or plot and instead relies on images to simply tell its story, to hint and suggest rather than to overwhelm you with heavy-handed “messages.” Don’t get me wrong, there’s a mountain of subtext to be unearthed from this film (Weerasethakul has said that he had to learn to be subtle especially about any political messages he includes in his films for fear of censorship from his government), but this is not a crossword puzzle, nor should it be treated as such. While the film eludes easy definition or meaning, spending too much time trying to figure out “what it all means” is futile – the film mainly wants to envelop you in its serene, quiet, peacefully cinematic tone and it’s only once the film has ended that you realize the kind of tranquil mode the film put you in. You feel, much like some characters in this film, as if you’ve just woken up from a reverie.
There are many scenes here that don’t really make sense and may not even have any relevance to the main “plot” of the film, but a lot of the film is edited almost based on the rhythm and a kind of visual coherence these scenes create when put together with the rest of the film rather than any concerns with narrative. This is cinema at its purest – using images to tell a story, but more than that, using images to make you think and feel. There is a brief interlude midway through the film where we get a series of shots of people sleeping all around the town and Weerasethakul slowly starts playing with the colors, and you don’t even notice it or realize it at first, but scenes turn a green tinge to a reddish hue to another color and back. There are multiple meanings to be taken away from this sequence but more immediate, more visceral, more important is the reaction it brings out of you in the moment as you’re watching it. It’s completely fascinating and mesmerizing.
This all might make it sound like a humorless affair but it isn’t – there’s a lot of absurd humor, some bawdy, and there are quite a few really absurd scenes (such as a man defecating in the woods but on camera). These scenes in the hands of a lesser director would have just come off as cheap, corny, and/or provocative for the sake of it (like certain juvenile, dime-a-dozen “provocateurs” out there), but because Weerasethakul treats everything in the film with a quiet matter-of-factness (something which extends to the characters in the film), you’re never taken out of the experience of the film. You never doubt the characters’ or the director’s intelligence and you never feel as if the director is doubting your intelligence either. From the get-go, the lines between dreams and reality, past and present, are blurred and, like I said, there’s a mountain of subtext to be unearthed here (themes about loneliness, memories, war, the past haunting the present, etc.), but Weerasethakul makes it all look effortless. He uses mostly static long takes throughout the film, preferring medium and long shots, so when the camera moves (I counted one time it did), you take notice. When he uses closeups for the first time near the film’s end, you take notice. His direction is unobtrusive but not invisible. Each frame is meticulously and uniquely composed so it isn’t just the kind of wide shots you find in other such “art house” films. The last shot especially is quite memorable as it leaves you hanging, pondering what you’ve seen and what you’ve experienced, and most importantly, leaving you quite wide awake.