“Cemetery of Splendor”: Taking the big sleep in enchanting Thai film

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“Cemetery of Splendor” has its Madison premiere on Wednesday at 7 p.m. at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, 227 State St. Free for non-members, $7 for all others. Not rated, 1:51, three stars out of four.

In the films of Thai director , the line between the living and the dead is not a wall, but a thin beaded curtain through which each side can see each other, wave to each other, even visit each other. In his last film, the beautiful and strange “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives,” a dying man is visited at the dinner table by the ghosts of his wives and son (his son having turned into a red-eyed Chewbacca-looking creature) and he welcomes them warmly, like they had RSVP’ed ahead.

Weerasethakul’s new film, “Cemetery of Splendor,” is comparatively simpler than “Boonmee” — you won’t see a princess get seduced by a talking catfish this time around. But that placid, normal-seeming exterior seems appropriate for a film that is about digging beneath the layers, digging to the past, digging to the subterranean heart of ourselves.

Much of the film takes place in an abandoned schoolhouse that has been converted into a military hospital, housing a group of soldier with a mysterious affliction. They’re all fine physically, except that they’ve fallen asleep and won’t wake up. A kindly volunteer nurse named Jenjira (Jenjira Pongpas Widner) watches over them, finding herself drawn to one soldier named Itt in particular (Banlop Lonmoi).

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Jenjira also befriends a psychic named Keng (Jarinpattra Rueangram), who can read the thoughts of the soldiers and communicate them to their loved ones. She believes that this hospital that was once a schoolhouse was also, centuries ago, a great palace, and that the soldiers are sleeping because the ghosts of the king’s army are drawing from their essences to aid in their battle. At one point, Keng takes Jenjira into the forest on a guided “tour” of the palace, as they look at piles of leaves and are able to see the pink stone of the edifice.

This sense of history, of the layers of the past that lurk beneath our present, is a powerful one, but one that Weerasekathul also has a bit of wry fun with. The city is dotted with kitschy dinosaur statues, suggesting the layers buried even deeper than that ancient palace. And, outside the windows of the hospital, we see construction crews digging up the dirt, ready to raze the school-hospital and lay fiber-optic cable in its place.

Keng also encounters a pair of friendly ghosts, who announce their true selves so matter-of-factly that it sends a shiver down the spine. And when Keng acts as a conduit for Itt to talk to Jenjira, what emerges is a strange and moving connection that seems to transcend ordinary human interactions.

“Cemetery” is a slow and contemplative film, and the fact that it lacks the obvious surreal touches of “Boonmee” sometime makes the viewer want to find a comfy bed near one of those soldiers. But it’s not difficult or inaccessible, but a graceful invitation to go along on its metaphysical wanderings.

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