Monday, September 28, 2015

NYFF ’15: Cemetery of Splendour

Believe it or not, the Thai government might have picked the absolute worst place for its new military clinic. It only just opened, but its future is already in doubt thanks to the ominous excavation going on around it. In fact, the land in question holds secrets that date back centuries. Still, as one patient observes in a rare moment of lucidity, it is a nice place to sleep. Sleep they will in Apichatpong “Joe” Weerasethakul’s Cemetery of Splendour (trailer here), which screens during the 53rd New York Film Festival.

This is no ordinary satellite clinic. The patients here all suffer from a severe form of narcolepsy, presumably resulting from shellshock, frequently manifesting in a near catatonic state. They are here to sleep and Jenjira has joined her old friend (and onetime care-giver) Nurse Tet to volunteer. Along with Keng the psychic, she will mostly just sit by their bedsides, tending to their needs should they happen to wake. Despite his unconscious state, she feels increasingly “synchronized” with the still vital looking Itt. When he suddenly rouses, he confirms their connection.

While there are mildly erotic overtones, their relationship is essentially one of surrogate mother and son. After all, Jenjira is quite happily married to the shy but affable American Richard Widner. She devoutly prays for all three of them, leaving offerings at the shrine of two legendary Laotian princesses. They so appreciate her efforts, they come alive to visit Jenjira, warning her the hospital is built atop the burial ground of ancient Thai kings. This is not Poltergeist, but that sort of mixed land use is usually problematic. However, Weerasethakul maintain an ambiguous perspective on potential spirit interference with the living, albeit extremely sleepy patients.

Without question, Cemetery is one of Weerasethakul’s most accessible films to date. Unlike his over-hyped Palme d’Or winner Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, it is fully stocked with richly developed characters and engaging situations. This time around, his forays into natural realism are—dare we say it—quite charming. Yet, there is still that seductive otherworldly vibe and the arresting use of the surrounding landscape.

The cast, led by Weerasethakul regular Jenjira Pongpas Widner, also contributes remarkably subtle and finely calibrated performances. Pongpas is wonderfully warm and earthy as her namesake. She develops some fascinatingly ambiguous chemistry with Banlop Lomnoi’s Itt, whose hesitancy and gentleness is strangely poignant. As Nurse Tet, Petcharat Chaiburi nicely balances strength and sensitivity, while Sujittraporn Wongsrikeaw and Bhattaratorn Senkraigul add grace and a spirit of enjoyment as the goddess princesses.

Sort of like the scene of the catfish ravishing the princess in Boonmee, Cemetery has a roughly analogous centerpiece in which attention is lavished on Jenjira’s badly swollen leg. While that was about all Boonmee had going for it, Cemetery needs no such provocative indulgences. In fact, it is an unnecessary distraction from the film’s full-bodied characterizations and redolent sense of place. Despite that misstep and a noticeable third act slackening, Cemetery is a deeply humanistic and surprisingly satisfying excursion into the mystical mysteries hidden in everyday plain sight. Highly recommended for those who appreciate the obliquely fantastical, Cemetery of Splendour screens this Wednesday (9/30) at Alice Tully Hall and Thursday (10/1) at the Beale Theater, as a Main Slate selection of this year’s NYFF.