AFF: CEMETERY OF SPLENDOUR (Rak ti Khon Kaen) [2015]

Originally written for:

SALTYLOGO6cemetery of splendour movie poster image

Directed and Written by Apichatpong Weerasethakul

Starring: Jenjira Pongpas, Banlop Lomnoi, Jarinpattra Rueangram

I am a life-long insomniac. Sleep is a battle, one that I have fought for as long as I can remember, and both sleeping and dreaming are concepts that I think about endlessly. Within the Cemetery of Splendour however, the opposite is true. A mysterious sleeping sickness is affecting the soldiers of a small area in Thailand, with many laid out in a makeshift hospital, barely, if ever, awake.

We soon meet Jenjira, a volunteer worker at the hospital, and her friend Keng, who is a psychic and claims to have the ability to help relatives speak to their loved ones who are lost in sleep. Jenjira becomes close to Itt, one of the sick soldiers who manages to be awake for longer periods of time.

This is a highly unconventional film, and that is stating it lightly. This film goes beyond the art-house genre, into territory that I have never seen explored before on film. Each and every take is steady, without movement, often lasting for minutes at a time. It is hard to not be reminded of Tarkovsky as we watch a scene of Jenjira rubbing lotion on Itt’s chest for at least two minutes, the camera not moving at all. In fact I am pretty sure it moved only twice during the film, once to signify when Jenjira began to fall into her own dream (at least that is how I saw it, this movie is very, very open to interpretation) and it moved again when the film ended on a striking note, leaving the audience to wonder just what the hell they watched, what it meant, why it was filmed in the manner it was… This is a very thoughtful film, one to contemplate on as you go to sleep the night after witnessing it.

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Apart from what I have outlined so far, not much happens regarding the narrative. Jenjira begins to feel some affection towards Itt, who often falls asleep mid-conversation. The soldiers are being treated with a new technique: a hypnotic looking neon light therapy, which it is said to ease the suffering of the patients, affecting their dreams in a positive way. There are a lot of conversations that seem to be about nothing in particular, just simple realities of life, again reminding me of some of Tarkovsky’s work. The second half of the film descends into surrealism as Jenjira falls into a dream-like journey of her own, a symbolic representation of sleep and the world of dreaming.

Jenjira goes through a sort of spiritual awakening as the events of the movie become increasingly strange: at one point we see people sitting on chairs at a park, then getting up and switching chairs with other people, constantly, like a game of musical chairs on speed. The best thing about this movie is that it is a different experience for each viewer; I saw this swapping of chairs as symbolic of the random nature of dreams, but that is just me. Jen’s psychic friend Keng offers to help her talk to Itt when he falls asleep. 

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Keng leads Jenjira into a lightly forested area where she speaks of Itt’s former life, talking of royalty and prince’s chambers. While they walk through this area, we see many proverbs written on signs and hung from the trees; one saying something along the lines of “when you offend you want forgiveness, but if you are offended you forget how to forgive.” The film is making the suggestion that during sleep it is possible to enter other spiritual dimensions, or dreams, and within them one can find great wisdom.

I think, therefore I am. Those words were running through my head as I watched this, even more so as the film become increasingly surreal. Is Jenjira dreaming? Or is what we are seeing the dream of one of the sleeping soldiers? Jenjira is disabled, having one leg ten centimetres shorter than the other, a symbol for the uneven and often unfair nature of some dreams, and often sleep, much like the soldiers in the movie. Of course, a different viewer could simply be seeing a random set of events and think nothing more of it, but I saw a lot.

It is hard to recommend this film. It certainly isn’t an easy watch, and a lot of patience is required. There isn’t really a story, rather the film offers symbolic interpretations of the nature of sleep and dreaming, through an elderly woman exploring romance, spirituality and the nature of life itself. Despite the slow pace and the motionless camera I found myself riveted by this film, sucked into the symbolic imagery on the screen. Fans of experimental cinema need only apply here.

4 Pops