"Amongst humans, the most brilliant are those who are disciplined." This printed quote, lying amid the leaves and forgotten relics of an abandoned classroom, speaks to the earnest, unhurried way of life in northeastern Thailand and also to the selfless woman, Jenjira (Jenjira Pongpas Widner), who happens upon the message. She has traveled to the Isan province of Khon Kaen to volunteer at a makeshift school-turned-hospital caring for soldiers suffering from a curious form of narcolepsy. Jenjira latches in particular to Itt (Banlop Lomnoi), the two of them bonding not only on the rare occasions when the young military man wakes, but also through each other's respective dreams. As their conscious realities and sleeping unconsciousness synchronously intertwine, the mystical history of the land's past, culture and present comes stirringly to life.
Written and directed with graceful empathy and patience by Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul (2011's "Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives"), "Cemetery of Splendor" is a lovely surrealistic hymn to human connection, loneliness, faith, nature, war, and the encroaching sprawl of urban development. Holding a special rhythm and cadence uniquely its own, the film is told primarily via static visual compositions, the lack of camera movements becoming their own poetic language as the viewer is invited to eavesdrop on the casually fantastic goings-on. In one way or another, each shotor series of shots, as in a glorious montage where the shifting hues of the town's late-night existence replicate the changing colors of the soldiers' hospital room illuminationtells its own complete story.
Weerasethakul is sneaky as he perceptively blends dream scenarios with what appears to be Jenjira's everyday life. In one scene, two friendly young women sit down beside her at a picnic bench, nonchalantly revealing they are dead Laotian princesses from the shrine where Jen had recently worshipped, with foresights to impart about the soldiers' illness and the precarious property on which the hospital sits. As inanimate dinosaur sculptures peer through the windows of the local library, a worker (Pongsadhorn Lertsukon) enthusiastically recommends an unlikely book to Jen called "Satan's Lover." In a transcendent third-act segment, fellow volunteer and psychic Keng (Jarinpattra Rueangram) allows Itt's soul to overtake her body as he and Jen take a woodsy stroll through an invisible royal palace, connecting along the way on physical, emotional and metaphysical planes.
Heady but not self-serious, the beautifully strange "Cemetery of Splendor" holds a welcome lightness and humor alongside its thematic pathos. It is an exotic brand of whimsy which could only be made by filmmakers who intimately know and love their country of origin's culture. The confidence with which writer-director Apichatpong Weerasethakul and cinematographer Diego García bless their carefully constructed mise en scéne quickly proves irresistible; they trust in their telling of this adventurous, oddball story and feel no need to spoon-feed any of it. Jen, a gentle, lame-legged do-gooder married to a retired American soldier (Richard Abramson) she doesn't often see, finds in Itt the companion she has been searching for, someone who accepts her in all formseven in their slumber. Meanwhile, the bulldozers across from the hospital move ever closer to a soccer field where kids will no longer be able to play. As Jen gazes upon the mounds of unsettled dirt, the film's movingly delicate final moments suggest her dreams may finally be over. For better or worse, much like the world around her, she has no choice but to move onward with both eyes wide open.