In this small town in Thailand, there is a building that used to be a school, but has since been abandoned and now is used as a makeshift hospital for a collection of patients, soldiers who have been afflicted with a mystery sleeping sickness that has left them in a coma for some time now. The place is always looking for volunteers to attend to the upkeep of both the building and the patients, which is why Jenjira (Jenjira Pongpas) arrives there to help out. She herself is afflicted after an accident left her leg crippled and shorter than her other leg, so she has to walk with crutches, and she is hoping she will be able to raise enough funds for a corrective operation. What she does not count on is making a connection with Itt (Banlop Lomnoi), one of the slumberers...
Cemetery of Splendour was writer and director Apichatpong Weerasethakul's follow up to his internationally acclaimed film Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, though this time around his work did not receive the same amount of attention and somewhat slipped under the radar of all but the most dedicated world cinema fan, in spite of securing better distribution than many a Thai movie on the global scene. Certainly it was a work recognisably in his style with its long takes, gentle pace and magic realism informing the plot, such as it was, but the fact was something like this was always going to divide audiences into those who "got it" (or thought they did) and those who rejected it out of hand.
Not that this was a bad film objectively, it was simply marching to the beat of its own drum, and it was not often you would see a production whose main character was a middle-aged disabled woman from Thailand, which at least lent it the novelty of taking a perspective rarely highlighted in any kind of media. Weerasethakul claimed this was one of his most personal efforts, making it in his hometown, though aside from looking loosely like the Robert De Niro true story yarn Awakenings his inspiration came from Pongpas herself whose life was informing the path her character took through the story, not that you needed to be aware of this to appreciate what the director conjured up for her, a curious mixture of deceptively mundane conversation and observation with a dose of deadpan fantasy.
As often with this filmmaker, that fantasy element was introduced subtly, so much so that its sheer matter of fact qualities might have you missing the significance of what Jenjira is going through. She makes friends with Keng (Jarinpattra Rueangram), a young psychic who tells the relatives of the patients what is going on in their minds, which according to her is some form of dream state (no, really?) that she is able to pick details out of to soothe their worries that the soldiers could be brain dead. Jenjira is assigned to take care of Itt, and one day applies a balm to his skin that makes him awaken: it's a miracle, but the film doesn't treat it as such, one moment he's simply asleep then the next he is back in the room, carrying on a bemused conversation with her. But while she is able to make him wake up, she cannot prevent him drifting back to sleep once again.
This is the case with the other soldiers, and though Jenjira takes Itt out to have a meal or wander around town, eventually he has to be carried back to the hospital, and Keng confides in her, in her contact with the spirit world sort of way, that the afflicted will never be cured, though whether Jen believes that is unclear, she seems to hold some hope in her heart just as she hopes her leg will be healed eventually. Every so often something extraordinary will occur, but presented with such lack of fanfare that you find yourself either adjusting to its laid back pace or alternatively, bored out of your mind. If you were on Cemetery of Splendour's wavelength you would likely find a strangely muted delight in such scenes as Jen meeting with two spirits of the princesses she has been making an offering to, who discuss the history of the hospital's site with utterly commonplace parlance, and the lengthy finale when Itt inhabits Keng's body and shows Jen around what he can see in his dream state builds to a weirdly dramatic conclusion. All this and coloured light poles and a man taking a shit on camera. Not everyone's cup of tea, but worth it for the adventurous.