In the final quarter of “Cemetery of Splendour,” the latest feature from the Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul, there’s an unusual exchange among the three main characters.
“Have you ever seen pink stone before?” asks Keng (Jarinpattra Rueangram), a young psychic.
“This is the first time in my life,” replies Jen (Jenjira Pongpas Widner), a volunteer assistant nurse and physical therapist.
The exchange is unusual because the corresponding imagery contains no pink stone: The shot is of a forest floor, covered in dead leaves and a few stones; the women’s feet are in the top edge of the frame. Then there’s the matter of the exchange being among three of the characters, even though only two performers are in the frame and speaking to each other. This is because Keng is channeling Itt (Banlop Lomnoi), a soldier who has a mysterious sleeping sickness. Itt, it seems, can travel in his sleep from the world of the present to the world of the past. And this forest, near the makeshift hospital where Keng and Jen work, and where Itt is a patient, was once the site of a regal palace. Itt is able to see and describe the palace, because his ailment makes him a kind of prisoner there.
Mr. Weerasethakul is probably the most quietly surprising director working today. “Cemetery” is a peaceful but troubled picture — there’s a lot roiling beneath. Its muted, largely naturalistic color palette is a contrast from the highly saturated and lush tones of the last Weerasethakul picture to play in the United States, “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives,” which won the Cannes Film Festival’s Palme d’Or in 2010.
The colors and deliberate, assured editing rhythms of “Cemetery” imbue it with a distinctive quality. Shots range in duration between 10 seconds and several minutes; the viewer feels to be floating with the imagery, and when the cutting briefly quickens, a lulling, bobbing motion is simulated. The mood Mr. Weerasethakul conjures is all the more extraordinary when you consider that the movie’s premise, in the hands of almost any other director, would be used to build some kind of horror movie.
Itt and a group of other soldiers lie immobile in a facility in Khon Kaen (the director’s hometown, as it happens). Keng and Jen, among others, provide them with care, and early on they are all hooked up to some unusual machines (“They used it with American soldiers in Afghanistan,” the nurses are told) that help them “dream good dreams.” Each model has a standing tube that changes color, sometimes suffusing the ward with a cool blue or hot pink. Two goddesses — Jen prays to their statues — show up, as real people, and they tell Jen that the sleeping soldiers will never get better because the hospital sits on an ancient cemetery. The spirits of dead kings still at war with one another inhabit the place, and they are sucking the spiritual energy from the soldiers.
Even so, Itt, Jen’s charge, is sometimes able to snap out of his stupor, and once awake and mobile, he has sharpened senses — “I can tell the temperature of the lights,” he says to Jen when they visit a plaza full of food stalls. Together, Jen and Itt explore the town. They go to the movies; we see them watching a trailer for a lurid horror film; then they stand up with the rest of the audience and stay still for a while. As it happens, it’s the custom in Thai movie theaters for audiences to stand for the national anthem; in the scene in “Cemetery,” though, no music plays.
There’s a cultural specificity to this movie that will make it, for Western audiences, even more enigmatic than it is in its Thai context. This ought not be a stumbling block, though. “Cemetery of Splendour,” which is opening as part of a wide-ranging Weerasethakul retrospective that runs through Thursday at the IFC Center (also screening is the director’s dreamy 2012 short feature “Mekong Hotel”), has an emotional pull that’s terribly sad and that practically transcends its underpinnings in political allegory.
Its final scene, in which the director moves his heretofore respectfully distant camera in for a couple of devastating medium close-ups, also features the most galvanic melding of pop music and cinematic imagery since the finale of Lynne Ramsay’s 2002 “Morvern Callar.” The mysterious universality that Mr. Weerasethakul achieves in this sequence, and in other moments throughout “Cemetery of Splendour,” is among the greatest of cinema’s many glories.
“Cemetery of Splendour” is not rated, is in Thai with English subtitles, and runs 2 hours 2 minutes.