Cemetery of Splendour AKA Rak ti Khon Kaen AKA Cemetery of Splendor [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray A - America - Strand Releasing
Review written by and copyright: Eric Cotenas (7th July 2016).
The Film

The titular Cemetery of Splendor is the forest surrounding a remote closed-down school in Isan that has been converted to a hospital for soldiers where the patients have all been affected by a mysterious "sleeping sickness." Crippled volunteer Jen (Blissfully Yours' Jenjira Pongpas) who watches over the patients and interacts with them during the rare times when they are awake acknowledges the strangeness of the ailment but reasons that it must have something to do with the school since she, as an alumni, half-jokingly recalls falling asleep all the time in school as a girl. Dr. Prasan (Boonyarak Bodlakorn) encourages various solutions from medicinal balms and meditation to be conscious of the thoughts that overwhelm them in dreams, to fluorescent tubes that change color and temperature while the patients sleep, and Nurse Tet (Petcharat Chaiburi) is so overwhelmed and understaffed that she must tolerate the extra volunteer help from psychic Keng (Jarinpattra Rueangram) who normally works with the police to contact the spirits of murder victims or the missing, and is at the hospital to communicate with the sleeping soldiers on behalf of their wives and parents. Jen and Keng strike up a friendship and share confidences despite Keng's inability or unwillingness to teach Jen her gift and Jen's unwillingness to lean Keng money. Nevertheless, this friendship seems to open Jen up to the otherworldly as she one day shares her lunch with two young women to claim to be the plain-clothed, corporeal forms of the two goddesses (Sujittraporn Wongsrikeaw and Bhattaratorn Senkraigul) of the nearby shrine to which she frequently makes offerings that she believes has netted her retired American soldier husband Richard (Richard Abramson). The goddesses inform her that the hospital is built over the sight of an ancient palace, the sight of a great battle between kings who draw on the energy of the soldier patients to continue fighting after death. Jen also forms a friendship with young soldier Itt (Tropical Malady's Banlop Lomnoi) who she had affectionately nicknamed "Little Pup" before he awoke who claims to have retained his senses in sleep and has found them heightened while awake ("I can separate all the smells in this market [] I can feel the temperatures of the lights [] I can smell the flowers in my dreams, too"), and seems to have fallen in love with Jen while dreaming and his feelings are unchanged upon meeting her in the flesh. When Itt falls back into another long slumber, Jen who has been taking some of her husband's various herbal supplements to prevent herself from falling asleep is able to enter Itt's dream world through the intervention of Keng who leads her through the forest which to Itt/Keng are the palace, the grandeur of which may be what draws the soldiers away from their more depressing waking life even as it saps their life forces.

Another visually and aurally spare yet thematically rich offering of magical realism from Thai auteur Apichatpong Weerasethakul's (Mysterious Object at Noon), Cemetery of Splendor is inspired by autobiographical details from the lives of its director and its star Pongpas. The only child of parents who were both doctors who chose a remote post in the north of Thailand, Weerasethakul's daily life consisted of the school, the hospital (conflated here), and the movie theater (where the trailer for a CGI-ridden horror film called The Iron Coffin Killer plays to empty seats). Contrasting those who prefer to escape the mundane world into dream worlds of sleep (the soldiers) or imagination (possibly Keng's psychic ability) with that of its heroine as essayed by Pongpas who suspended her acting career in 2003 when she was badly injured in a motorcycle accident before returning in Weerasethakul's 2006 film Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives as a middle-aged woman whose injury seems to have lumped her in with the town's senior citizen set in terms of activities, library visits, and volunteer work at the hospital. Jen seems to be grateful for what little she has in her waking life including an understanding if not emotionally demonstrative husband for which she makes regular offerings to the goddess of the shrine. The prospect of anything more than what she already has apart from such material divertissement as the latest novel in a popular series or free samples of a skin cream made of rubber carries the potential for misery and the loss of what little she treasures (as demonstrated in the moment of intimacy with Itt that she experiences through Keng during the climax). Whether she is or is not afraid of falling under the same sleeping sickness as the soldiers, Jen does not appear to sleep all that much and even confides to Keng that she takes her husband's vitamins to stay awake and spends her breaks from sitting with the soldiers "haunting" her old school in a like manner to Keng's/Itt's exploration of the temple. While lacking exploitation elements, there is something almost likened to Jess Franco, Jean Rollin, or Alain Robbe-Grillet in the way in which two women in plain clothes without any cinematographic or aural embellishment can walk up to the protagonist and introduce themselves as goddesses and the viewer believes it. The suitably engrossed viewer may also believe Keng's descriptions of the temple as she leads Jen through it because the same landmarks are tied to aspects of the more recent past of Jen the character and Jen the actress including another "battle", the marks on the landscape of which are visible in waking life to Jen and the viewer.
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Video

Strand Releasing gives a maxxed out bitrate encode to their BD50 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 1.78:1 widescreen presentation of a film composed largely of static shots and steady character movement, looking quite strong under the film's various interior and exterior lighting conditions. The few close-ups in the film boast impressive detail.
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Audio

The Thai DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 effectively conveys the film's meticulous sound design which is subdued throughout with the exception of a few city sequences and a couple surprising sound effects. The optional English subtitles are fairly comprehensive, although the formatting could be clearer in some instances (it took a couple views of one sequence to realize that brackets were being used to distinguish the translation of the doctor's droning offscreen lecture from the obscure passages in a notebook being read by one of the main characters).
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Extras

Exclusive to the Blu-ray edition of the film is the Weerasethakul's 2012 short film "Mekong Hotel" (59:10) which was inspired by his stalled production Ecstasy Garden. Set in a hotel along the Mekong River during the off season in the aftermath of the 2011 flood, the film juxtaposes scenes of a guitarist working on themes for a film with the love story of a woman who may be a vampire like her mother (Jenjira Pongpas) and a man who may be a reincarnation of her lover (who is subsequently possessed by her mother and is seen feeding on entrails after he uses traditional methods to capture the vampire's spirit form after it has fed upon his dog). Like Cemetery of Splendor, the film draws from Pongpas' life experiences, comparing the government handling of the flood with the the actress' remembrance of being jealous as a child of Laotian refugees crossing the river and receiving government aid while she and others along the Thai side of the river went hungry. The end product is a bit too languorous, with the incessant offscreen guitar strumming wearing on the viewer's patience and more than a few scenes seeming more thrown together than usual.
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On both DVD and Blu-ray, extras consist of deleted scenes (13:11) which include more scenes of Keng interacting psychically with patients as well as a bizarre scene between Itt and a commanding officer. In the the behind the scenes featurette (17:45), Weerasethakul covers his childhood as the only child of doctor parents who chose a far north post where his daily routine consisted of school, the movie theater (seen briefly in the film showing the trailer for the cheesy Iron Coffin Killer which may or may not be a real film), and the hospital. He also discusses his decision to shoot the film in Khan Kaen, his past collaborations with Jenjira Pongpas (and how her character weaves in autobiographical elements from both of them), the film's theme of people trying to escape their depressing circumstances in dreams, and casting from the local acting talent. Besides the film's theatrical trailer (1:43), the disc also includes trailers for four other films by the director as well as trailer for four other Strand art films.

Overall

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