Cemetery of Splendour, directed by Apichatpong Weerasethakul, brings us to a world where dreams and reality conflate. It is a world where a group of soldiers are plagued by a strange illness which causes them to suddenly and uncontrollably fall (quite literally and abruptly) asleep.
They are housed in a hospital where Jen, an ageing volunteer, works. We are told that the hospital stands on the burial ground of past kings who are still battling in the underworld and drawing on the energies of the soldiers, thereby causing this mysterious illness.
Jen is also dealing with her own disability (her right leg is 10cm shorter than her left). She forms a bond with a soldier named Itt, who, without any family of his own, spends his waking moments with Jen, keenly asking about her life and marriage to an American whom she met online. Much of the second half of the film is given to an extended dialogue between Jen and Itt, the former in the “real” world, and the latter communicating in his sleep through a medium.
Channeling his spirit through the body of the medium, Itt brings Jen to various places, pointing out the splendour of the palace rooms in the other world, asking her to be careful where she steps. In the real world, however, Jen only sees trees and bushes. Like her, we have to imagine what Itt is seeing. Because we see the “real” world, we think we know what reality is.
However, it turns out that reality is not all that we perceive. In other parts of the film, fantastical goddesses dressed in contemporary clothing appear in the flesh before Jen, a giant single-cell organism moves across the sky, and the city is bathed in strange artificial lights. This reminds us of the candy-shaped lights that are placed beside the sleeping soldiers, supposedly an experimental treatment that helps them sleep better. One cannot help but wonder if we are the ones sleeping by the lights, and hence seeing the city in bizarre changing hues.
The final scene casts doubt on any remaining confidence of reality when Jen stares wide-eyed into space, harking back to Itt’s advice for her to open her eyes as widely as possible if she wishes to wake from a dream. The film ends abruptly, as if we are also falling into deep sleep suddenly like the soldiers, and we are left wondering “what just happened and what was real?”
With knowledge of Thailand’s political history, one can read much into the undertones of the film, with its allusions to the paralysed (and sleeping) government over the years of unrest. The blurring of lines between dream and reality can be read as a parallel to the constant identity shifts in a land of fabricated histories and propaganda. In fact, the film is unlikely to be screened in Thailand precisely because of the current political climate.
Yet, even without its political innuendoes, this film can perhaps be enjoyed as a performative commentary on the very nature of film as constructed reality. Shakespeare’s Macduff urges his fellow subjects to shake off sleep which is “death’s counterfeit” and look upon (the king’s) death itself. Sleep is not death’s counterfeit in this film, but it represents a journey into another world which we believe is simply a dream. At the end of the film, Jen is trying to wake up to look upon reality itself (and we do not know if she does) – maybe this is what the film does to our perception of reality after the credits roll on a world called “Cemetery of Splendour.”