If there is indeed only one chance at making a good first impression, then an impeccable introductory shot is as essential to a film’s narrative as a lashed Windsor knot and highly reflective pair of Florsheims are to a job interview. Apichatpong Weerasethakul, the Thai filmmaker whose name reads like an eye chart, flaunts his stage-setting skill by opening his latest, Cemetery of Splendour, with a shot packed so full of visual information that it would take a mausoleum to house it all.
Cemetery of Splendour
From the distanced perspective of a front porch, we watch as soldiers oversee a pair of earth-grinding steam shovels. The veranda is attached to a small elementary school — temporarily transformed into a military hospital — that houses a group of vets felled by a bafflingly incurable sleeping sickness. Outside, the mechanical claws devour dirt in search of the “cemetery of kings,” a mythic graveyard buried beneath the schoolyard that could house a cure for the sudden somnolence.
An odd alliance is struck between patriotic volunteer Jen (Jenjira Pongpas) and Keng (Jarinpattra Rueangram), a local psychic and/or FBI mole who is down on her luck — during their first lunch together she asks Jen for a loan to help pay the rent — and temporarily employed by the government to aid with the investigation. Only in a town as sleepy as this could a makeshift ward filled with slumbering soldiers be viewed as an entertainment alternative. Locals turn out to see the comatose commandos, while family members ask Keng to divine tomorrow’s winning lottery numbers.
As for the aforementioned distanced perspective, Weerasethakul’s deliberate pace, unostentatious camera placement, and refusal to cut in for a closeup adds a surreal serenity; he never once forces his character’s emotions down our throat. The long takes of the immobilized troopers that dominate the first half hour invite the viewer to scour the frame for signs of life. When the moment arrives and one of the bedridden troops finally makes a move, it’s not half as startling as when, a few scenes later, a relapse causes the briefly revitalized boys to fall face first into their meals.
Cemetery of Splendor (Rak ti Khon Kaen)
The less we’re told, the more we’re sucked in by the film’s hypnotic, ever-expanding aura of mystery. Given the cultural boundaries — most noticeably the rigorous reliance on regional dialect as part of the storytelling — there is much in the film that we may never fully grasp. (I’m guessing a good 30 percent is lost in translation.) But it’s nothing that several subsequent DVD screenings and a good audio commentary can’t cure.
This is as good a time as any to check out the Digital Gym’s new digital projection system. Before exiting this Cemetery, leave a stone on your seat to commemorate the film’s lasting presence.