The film’s title caught my attention. Perhaps it was the words that seem so extreme that drew my curiosity in Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s latest film Cemetery of Splendour. It’s intriguing, captivating and rich in dreamy thoughts with a touch of humour. Now playing in Toronto at TIFF Bell Lightbox.
The story is set in a rural make-shift hospital where patients (soldiers) are being treated for a mysterious sleeping sickness. They spend most of their time in bed while doctors explore different therapies to find a cure and to ease their troubled dreams. The men would wake for only short periods of time either to eat of chat. Only a few have visitors to keep them company, but not all.
A local housewife and volunteer Jenjira spends her time watching over one soldier, Itt. Despite her own physical disabilities she patiently cares for him even when he’s not awake. Jenjira befriends another woman at the hospital, Keng who has psychic abilities and visits to help families communicate with the comatose men. Some wanting to know of past mistresses or if there are any messages that need to be relayed.
Magic, healing, a hint of romance and dreams unravels in unexpected ways as Jenjira becomes more aware of herself now that her world involves this medium and the sleeping soldier.
The film is set in Apichatpong’s home town Khon Kaen and is very personal to him. “The film is a search for the old spirits I knew as a child. My parents were doctors and we lived in one of the hospital housing units. My world was the patients’ ward where my mother worked, our wood house, a school, and a cinema…The city has changed so much. But when I went back I only saw my old memories superimposed on the new buildings,” said Apichatpong in the interview notes provided.
While many of the filming locations were real, there were other mythological spaces of a palace and cemetery incorporated into the story which seems also very much part of the culture. “When we were young we were told about this most amazing place where the water is full of fish and the land covered in rice fields. The signs of wealth were always idyllic, omitting the brutalities. We have this burden of fabricated history. It effects generations: how do we view ourselves? With the information that is surfacing and recent studies, our sense of identity is shifting. I think the film plays with the shaky sense of belonging,” said the director.
But the idea of the mysterious sleeping sickness was an idea that came to mind after a news story he saw about a hospital that was forced to quarantine 40 soldiers. Apichatpong was also fascinated with sleeping and started writing down his dreams and married the two ideas. “I think it was a way to escape the terrible situations on the streets,” he explained as at that time, the political situation in Thailand was at a stand-still.
The cast in this film are from Isan – located in Thailand’s north-east region. Lead actress Jenjira Pongpas Widner began working with Apichatpong in his film Blissfully Yours (2002). Actually, their first encounter happened when she brought actors to his office for casting calls. She was hanging around his office and the director explained that he loved her personality and her stories. He’s since worked with her on several projects even after a motorcycle accident in 2003 that crippled her leg.
Apichatpong Weerasethakul is an award-winning writer and director. His previous six feature films, short films and installations have received international recognition including Cannes Palme d’Or in 2010 for his film Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives. In 2004, his film Tropical Malady won the Cannes Competition Jury Prize. These are just a couple examples of the awards he has for his incredible work.
Cemetery of Splendour is a beautiful and spiritual journey of personal awareness and discovery. Apichatpong has shown how magical life can be if we simply pay attention to it and care for it.
Here’s the trailer…