Sunday, March 6, 2016

Review: Cemetery of Splendor

Image courtesy of Strand Releasing. 
The films of Thailand's Apichatpong Weerasethakul are difficult to define or categorize - and in a good way. The director, who goes by "Joe" considering the length of his name, makes pictures that often deal in dream logic and combine stories that feature elements from the past and present, fantasy and reality, human and otherwise.

His latest, "Cemetery of Splendor," is a little more restrained than usual and, as a result, not among his best films. It's a picture to admire for its often lovely cinematography and, especially, use of color, even as its story never quite gels.

Set in a remote hospital somewhere in Thailand, the film's narrative revolves around soldiers who lie on cots, asleep all day for reasons unexplained. At one point in the picture, one of the film's leads is told that the location of the hospital is on a former cemetery of kings and that the soldiers' energy is being zapped by the dead kings who continue to wage war on one another underneath the ground. Nobody exactly refutes this explanation.

Jenjira (Jenjira Pongpas, a Weerasethakul regular) is an older woman with one leg longer than the other, requiring her to walk around on crutches. At the hospital, she befriends two people - a young psychic who is rumored to have been recruited by the FBI and is at the hospital in an attempt to contact the sleeping soldiers and one of the soldiers - a man named Itt (Banlop Lomnoi), who occasionally awakens to have conversations with Jenjira before drifting back to sleep.

In terms of story, that's pretty much it, although Weerasethakul's films often focus more on tone and dreamy visuals than narrative. And there are some great ones in "Cemetery," especially a sequence during which a variety of places are lit by tones across the color spectrum that recede and are replaced by others. The shots include an escalator full of people, a building front and the room housing the soldiers.

Inexplicable situations abound. A group of people watching the trailer for a silly martial arts horror movie randomly stand up and stare as the screen goes blank. Jenjira sits watching with widened eyes as a group of young boys play soccer on an excavation site. At one point in the film, Jenjira visits a shrine, where she pays homage to the statues of two female goddesses. A few scenes later, two young women approach her and tell her that they are the goddesses and this does not give off the impression of being out of the ordinary, especially for a Weerasethakul film.

But I wouldn't advise viewers unfamiliar with the director's oeuvre to start with "Cemetery," which is a decent film, but far from his best work. I'd highly recommend "Tropical Malady," in which a young man is obsessed with another boy who, during the film's second half, is transformed into a tiger, or the Palm d'Or winning "Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives," during which a man's dead son is reincarnated as some sort of wooly forest creature with glowing red eyes. Moviegoers with patience and a taste for the peculiar will likely be entranced by the work of this singular artist.

But while "Cemetery of Splendor" is a pretty good movie, it's a far cry from Weerasethakul's finest work and certainly not the starting point for the uninitiated.

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