A hospital houses a number of ex-servicemen afflicted by an unnamed condition, an extreme type of narcolepsy, which leaves them asleep almost all of the time, and prone to falling asleep in an instant the few times they are not. These patients are seen to by a number of nurses, friends, family and students, doting on and caring for them as they sleep their days away.
This is the decidedly not-especially-exciting set-up to Apichatpong ‘Joe’ Weerasethakul’s Cemetery of Splendour. And this is where a reviewer might claim that all is not what it seems in the state of Weerasethakul, but to do so would be somewhat disingenuous. Cemetery of Splendour, at least on one of its many levels, is very much and solely about these sleeping soldiers and their caretakers. Those who are awake and able to do so wander aimlessly around the hospital grounds and the provincial Taiwanese town in which it is located. They share meals, watch movies, converse with magical spirit women made animate, and discover invisible palaces amongst the trees, while the soldiers lie motionless in their hospital beds, strikingly adorned with colourful glowing neon tubes, projecting, perhaps, the shifting moods of their collective dream.
To say much more about where the film goes and the stories it tells would be, well, let’s face it, pretty much impossible. And as his audiences will have come to understand, to ask what is going on in Weerasethakul’s films is missing the point (I think?). Just go with it, maaan.
A task which is maybe easier than usual, for never has the adjective ‘meditative’ been more applicable to a film-going experience. The sounds of birds chirping and the steady trickle of water running, always, somewhere nearby, are constant companions throughout the film, lulling the audience into a dream-like state in which the goings-on of this world seem perfectly natural. You can’t ask questions, or try to apply logic to these events, you can only surrender to the quotidian magic which dictates this world slightly removed from our own.
And, if I can immediately contradict myself, while there are no obvious answers to what is taking place here, no clear indication as to what any of this really means, there do seem to be some clues. And, if you’re looking, these may point to the idea that our own lives are not entirely dissimilar from those of the sleeping soldiers. Shot through with the films we see, the stories we tell, and the neon-infused nightscapes we frequent, our waking lives may resemble these soldiers’ dream lives more than we care to admit. Or maybe an inverted comparison is more in the neighbourhood. For while their bodies sleep, their minds are otherwise engaged, waging endless unconscious battles somewhere down below.
If you are susceptible to its rhythms, and I hope you are, Cemetery of Splendour will take you to unseen and unusual places. And you will go there gladly.
Cemetery of Splendour plays at ACMI through to the 28th of January.