A group of soldiers suffer a mysterious bout of narcolepsy. They are placed in a clinic where they are taken care of by volunteer nurses. Outside, a construction project ordered by the government seems to run ceaselessly.
We see Jen (Jenjira Pongpas), a nurse at the clinic, have lunch and exercise as part of a break from her work at the clinic. Her conversations with Keng (Jarinpattra Rueangram), a fellow nurse who is a psychic, border on the humorous at times. Weerasethakul writes naturalistic dialogue and their conversation topics range from cosmetics and dieting to the problem of the sleeping soldiers. At the clinic, Jen spends most of her time overlooking Itt (Banlop Lomnoi), a soldier who has no family.
Jen visits a religious shrine with her husband, a retired American soldier. The day following, the princesses- depicted as statues in the shrine- come to visit Jen. They inform her that the soldiers in the clinic will never recover; there is a cemetery of kings below the clinic and the soldiers’ energy is being drawn from them in order for the kings to continue and fight their battles from the grave. When Jen tells Keng and another nurse about her encounter with the princesses, Keng replies that she is glad that the soldiers are being put to use. The matter-of-fact tone of dialogue throughout Cemetery of Splendor characterizes the emulsion of the mundane with the supernatural.
When Jen tells Keng that she feels like she asleep in her life, Keng tells her to keep her eyes wide open as if this was the secret to uncovering clarity in one’s experiences.
An interesting choice in Weerasethakul’s filming of Cemetery of Splendor is the lack of reverse shots used in conversation. Characters have their backs to the camera as they talk and Weerasethakul scarcely chooses to show character’s faces in close-up. When he does, we rush to decipher the character’s expression, attempting to find insight into their thoughts.
To analyze every detail in Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Cemetery of Splendor would be a challenging, albeit futile, task. Weerasethakul decides to include shots that depict the world as it is, free of the supernatural, such as his filming of a chicken and her hens, the spinning of ceiling fans, and signs with aphorisms written on them nailed to trees in the nearby forest. I believe there is no intended ‘hidden meaning’ or symbolism behind these shots.
There is no grand revelation that occurs at the end of Cemetery of Splendor– this film is unlike that of Tarkovsky or Malick. It is about dreams and consciousness, but only abstractedly. Whether or not Cemetery of Splendor is memorable or forgettable depends almost entirely on individual sensibility to the particular images and settings that Weerasethakul deems essential to depict.