• Craigen Oster

10/40/70 - Cemetery of Splendour

In the book 10/40/70, author Nicholas Rombes recognizes the necessity of constraint as a means of liberating film criticism in the digital era. In this section of my reviews, I will be deploying the same techniques utilized by Rombes; analyzing the contents of the frames a film contains at the 10 minute, 40 minute, and 70 minute marks. These reviews will be posted every Wednesday.

Craigen Z Oster

Cemetery of Splendour (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2015)

I originally Intended to write on Apichatpong Weerasethakul's (who I'll refer to by his nickname "Joe" from here on out for simplicity's sake) 2011 feature Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives. I had the still captured and began writing. But today, Tuesday October 13, 2020, I decided to check out another of Joe's films. I initially started seeking out his 2006 film Syndromes and a Century, but found that this film Cemetery of Splendour, was the only one I could watch right now, for free (well, I did of course have to sign up for a 7-day free trial of an amazon prime add-on). Such is the case with all culture currently, you arrive at unintended destinations via the path of least resistance, clicking around until eventually you can find something you won't have to do even as little as type in a credit card number for.

Some 2 hours later and I found what I was looking for, I just didn't know it. While I enjoyed Uncle Boonmee and was interested to to discover a way in to the film through 10/40/70, watching Splendour allowed me to realize that sometimes you just need to let existence pass you and circle back, constantly looping around until you are delivered with that which you never knew you needed.

10 Minutes

A water turbine spins in the Mekong River, adjacent to a small town in northern Thailand. This image was proceeded by a fixed shot of a ceiling fan spinning in an open room. As the runtime ticked closer and closer to the 10 minute mark, I felt certain I would be capturing this image of the ceiling fan. The shot had already held for over 10 seconds, and having seen Uncle Boonmee I knew that Joe was prone to allowing his shots to linger much longer than even the slowest of modern filmmakers. I felt myself getting ahead the film itself in that moment, still holding on to some notion of the way one typically watches a Western, plot-driven film where the audience is expected to play detective, constantly deciphering the clues left within each shot to anticipate what happens next. The intended effect of this is satisfaction that you as the viewer are so astute and intelligent, you knew where it was going all along; or that again you were so smart in anticipating the reveal but ultimately recognizing that this was done to subvert your expectations.

When the film cut, just before the 10 minute mark, to this shot of the turbine, I knew I had to slow down. The film was forcing me to do as such. So what to make of this turbine? In one sense, it can be seen as man itself, where the water constantly flowing through it is time itself on a never ending torrent. The turbine merely sits in the river, generating power through its own design merely by consistently spinning. Is this all that humans are as well, constantly spinning in the same cycles of waking and sleeping?

Cemetery of Splendor follows days in the life of Jen, an older Thai woman who has volunteered as a nurse at a hospital in what used to be her old grade school classroom. This hospital contains a dozen soldiers who have been infected by some sort of unnamed disease that puts them in a near constant state of sleep, with the occasional moment of waking, only to fall back asleep at random like a narcoleptic.

My thoughts go back to the turbine. Are these soldiers any different from those awake? They are constantly rotating through the various sleep cycles, existing in a dream reality that ultimately is the same as the waking life of those taking care of them, for it is only when they wake up do they perceive that anything within their dreams were strange.

I'm reminded of a line in Charlie Kaufman's most recent film I'm Thinking of Ending Things. The woman whose name constantly changes, played by Jessie Buckley, proclaims "maybe it isn't us who move through, by time that moves through us."

40 Minutes

At this point in the film, we fine Jen (around whom the film revolves) dancing and stretching along with her American husband (in red) during some sort of community exercise along the Mekong River. No two people in this shot where the same shade. Everyone is unique, yet all part of the same rhythm, bouncing along to the instructions being spoken and the music carrying them along.

This moment is one of the few in the film where music is actually used. For the the most part, Joe relies only on diegetic sound design to overwhelm the viewers senses with the everyday hum and rhythm of life in a small village. This instance of music immediately feels out of place, but only in that we are for the first time reminded of the absence such music throughout the film.

In her essay The Aesthetics of Silence, Susan Sontag spoke of the relational aspect of silence:

"Silence” never ceases to imply its opposite and to depend on its presence: just as there can’t be “up” without “down” or “left” without “right,” so one must acknowledge a surrounding environment of sound or language in order to recognize silence…
A genuine emptiness, a pure silence is not feasible — either conceptually or in fact. If only because the artwork exists in a world furnished with many other things, the artist who creates silence or emptiness must produce something dialectical: a full void, an enriching emptiness, a resonating or eloquent silence. Silence remains, inescapably, a form of speech (in many instances, of complaint or indictment) and an element in a dialogue.

By allowing a moment of song to enter the film in this instant, the impact of the silence of this film on the viewer only grows stronger as they are now reminded of just how quiet what they're seeing truly is, and just how much space they are being given to think and dream as they what what unfolds before their eyes.

70 Minutes

Jen and her newfound friend, the soldier Itt, sit on a wide open porch in the middle of the woods. Itt is one of the patients that Jen has been helping to treat throughout the film, slowly developing a bond with him by serving as his link to the outside world whenever he does wake up. Paradoxically, they are able to be both inside and out at the same time due to the constructions of the structure on which they sit. Throughout the film, Jen is constantly in between dreams and waking reality. Young women proclaiming to be goddesses walk up to and sit with her, people are able to act as mediums for the spirits of others, and long dead kings are supposedly using the sleeping soldiers to fight their never-ending wars on different planes of existence. But all of this is taken as seriously as a walk through the woods. There are no hints as to what is to be taken as literal or as merely a dream. Jen, and therefore the viewer, is able to exist squarely within both realms simultaneously.