That's the word being tossed around, and not lightly, to describe Apichatpong Weerasethakul's latest feature, Cemetery of Splendour (รักที่ขอนแก่น, Rak Ti Khon Kaen), which had its world premiere on Monday at the Cannes Film Festival, and was warmly received with a 10-minute standing ovation.
Following the film's screening in the Un Certain Regard competition, pundits at Cannes are calling Cemetery of Splendour one of the best films in the fest, and some wonder why it wasn't included in the main Palme d'Or competition, especially since Apichatpong is a past Palme d'Or and Jury Prize winner. Adding to the feeling of irk is the fact that Splendour wasn't included in the fest's original line-up announcement – it wasn't added until about a week later.
A number-crunching critics rating ranks Splendour with a strong score of 8.45, making it second overall to Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-hsien's main competition title The Assassin, and ahead of Todd Haynes' much-buzzed-about Carol.
In an article in The Nation today, Apichatpong downplayed concerns about the Un Certain Regard slot. Here's the quote:
“Cemetery of Splendour is another step forward for me, but I understand why the film was chosen for Un Certain Regard. As I said on the stage, Un Certain Regard is the section for real discovery and excitement, and I am happy that the film is being shown with other titles from new directors who will be the future of cinema.”
Further coverage of the premiere was included earlier in the week in The Nation's Soopsip gossip column, where World Film Festival of Bangkok chief Kriengsak "Victor" Silakong was quoted:
"It is a truly Thai film and uses the Isaan dialect throughout," Victor observes. "It's an unbelievable mix of belief, the spiritual world and fact. Yet the film is simple and thought-provoking. Joe still has it, and I salute him!"
There were loud cheers as the credits rolled in Cannes. "The applause went on for a long time, like 10 minutes" Victor says. "It was fantastic!"
Anyway, to recap, Cemetery of Splendour is about a lonely middle-aged woman (Apichatpong's frequent actress Jejira Pongpas) who is caring for soldiers in a rural clinic who have been stricken with a mysterious sleeping sickness. She forms a bond with a patient named Itt (Banlop Lomnoi from Tropical Malady) while also forming a friendship with a spirit medium (Jarinpattra Rueangram), who says the slumbering malady was caused by a disturbance to "an ancient cemetery of kings".
A frequently used still image has Apichatpong's trademark fluorescent lights. Here, they are used in the treatment of the snoozing soldiers, and add a surreal science-fiction element to spiritual tale.
So let's get to those reviews. First up, Jessica Kiang from IndieWire's The Playlist:
"It is also because the mood 'Cemetery' evokes, a sense of alien wonder that seems not to sink in from the outside but to spring from the bass-deep pit of your own stomach, came to me as perhaps the purest expression of cinema as it was meant to be seen: in a theater, in the dark, in the quiet, inspiring and requiring a quality of distraction-free attention that is simply disappearing as a mode of interaction with art."
Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian:
"This is another of his unique imagist cine-poems: an essay in psychogeography and a meditation on death, the presence of the spirit world in nature and the unquiet ghosts of guilt and pain in the Thai nation, as symbolised by the military - a recurrent trope in his work."
Justin Chang at Variety:
"While his tale of a hospital volunteer who bonds with an infected soldier emerges from the same mythic worlds explored in Tropical Malady (2004) and Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010), the surreal visitations here occur at a more subdued, almost subterranean level; this is an eerily becalmed work in which spiritual possessions and mysterious deities come to seem virtually indistinguishable from ordinary reality.
Screen Daily's Allan Hunter:
Working through a largely linear narrative creates a more approachable piece than many of his previous films, suggesting the potential to broaden his core arthouse audience. “ Slow cinema” lovers and devoted followers of the director should also find enough to mull over in this mysterious, melancholic feature to feel that none of his distinctive vision has been compromised for the sake of accessibility.
And Jordan Mintzer in The Hollywood Reporter:
"Past lives and ancient ancestors are evoked through conversations that are both cryptic and oddly matter-of-fact, in a work that has the realistic vibe of a documentary but the unearthly qualities of a sustained reverie. This is nothing new for Weerasethakul, who in previous films has transformed men into tigers and ignored narrative conventions as much as possible, though there are moments here that seem more drawn out than before. A few surprises are nonetheless in store, especially when Itt wakes up and begins a sort-of mother-son relationship with Jen, even if his moments of consciousness are short lived."
The social media has more than its share of reviews. Here's one that recommends Cemetery of Splendour as a balm to those who overindulged:
Cemetery of Splendour (Apichatpong) was two blissful hours of cooling forest poetry. Rinsed my soul, cured my hangover. 👍 #Cannes2015— Robbie Collin (@robbiereviews) May 18, 2015
There are also lots of interviews with the director. Among the most-cited I've come across is one he did with The Isaan Record, an online journalism effort that's headquartered in the film's location (and Apichatpong's native hometown), Khon Kaen. He reflects a lot on the northeastern Thailand city:
"I feel sorry to say that Khon Kaen is becoming very similar to other cities around the country that have no identity anymore. The best that city planners can come up with is placing dinosaurs around the city. We also feature that in the film. I think the film looks at the city with the eyes of sadness."
Other Q-and-A articles are at The Hollywood Reporter and Huffington Post.
IndieWire drew an unlikely connection between Cemetery of Splendour and Pixar's newest animated feature Inside Out.
And, there's good news for viewers in North America, who can relax in knowing that Cemetery of Splendour will get there thanks to Strand Releasing. Variety had that scoop. Strand had previously handled Apichatpong's 2010 Palme d'Or winner Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives.
As for a Thai release, The Nation article today by indie film producer and freelance film-festival correspondent Donsaron Kovitvanitcha ends with a bummer, saying "it seems unlikely that it will be seen in Thailand".
Of course that could be a bit of reverse psychology to make cinema-goers in Thailand suddenly want something they've been told they can't have.