The seemingly stark divide between sleep and wakefulness serves as the main motif in Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Cemetery of Splendor, which allegorizes the history of Thailand as deepest REM slumber.
Weerasethakul's works are sensory delights, haunted, if obliquely, by Thailand's violent political past and still fractious present. A film about the unconscious that always stirs to life, Cemetery takes place in Weerasethakul's hometown of Khon Kaen. Arriving on crutches, Jen (Jenjira Pongpas Widner) enters a schoolhouse-turned–medical clinic. Outside this makeshift hospital, cranes dig dirt in an endless, baffling construction project; inside, comatose soldiers are hooked up to glowing, neon-hued light fixtures.
The devices will help the wounded warriors “have good dreams,” as a member of the staff explains to Jen, a gentle volunteer at the sanatorium. But others, visiting from another realm, deliver less hopeful news to the middle-aged woman. Goddesses from a shrine that Jen had made offerings to earlier materialize during her lunch break to inform her that the soldiers will never recover; the long-dead kings buried underneath the clinic, the deities say, must siphon the energy of the narcoleptic infantrymen to restage their centuries-old royal battles.
As is his custom, Weerasethakul addresses his nation's martial history with the lightest of touches. The combatant to whom Jen becomes the most attached, Itt (Banlop Lomnoi), utters the most damning line in the movie: “I see no future in being a soldier.” The declaration resounds all the more for having been issued so softly — and is punctuated further by the fact that Itt slips back into a stupor mid-sentence a few seconds later, a hush typical of Weerasethakul's work.