NYFF 2021 review: Memoria (Apichatpong Weerasethakul)

“In Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s latest film, Memoria, his unique leisurely directorial approach interrogates as well as experiments with the endless possibilities of the art form in refreshing and movingly self-reflexive ways.”

“Why are you crying? These aren’t your memories.”

It is difficult to accurately describe the cinema of Apichatpong Weerasethakul. It is the cinema of shapeshifting: fluid, barely tangible, freed from limitations imposed by contemporary – Western in particular – conventions of narrative. It constantly challenges form and dramatic structure as the fundamental core of storytelling. There is an inherent boldness in the Thai filmmaker’s enquiry to subvert expectations by allowing the image and its subtext to defy logic and explore the breadth of the viewer’s imagination. His films construct a sensorial passageway to a parallel world that feeds the one we (assumedly) experience in our everyday lives. Matter and spirit co-exist. Image and sound appear to be birthed from the director’s complete embrace of the elemental evoking something disturbing yet welcoming. Each moment highlights the primitive and the spectral; memory – whether hazy or startlingly detailed – collides with the present, upends it, and ultimately transforms it into something undefined and relative. The deceptively idyllic tranquility is loaded with foreboding uneasiness. Events of seismic importance are presented in a surprisingly grounded and quiet way as if they are indistinguishable from the banality of daily life. On the other hand, moments of idleness are interrupted by the intrusion of the fantastical. Consistently fascinated by the rift between reality and fiction as well as the cohabitation of the ordinary and the mythical, Weerasethakul invites the viewer to delve into a dreamlike state of contemplation and introspection. In his latest film, Memoria, his unique leisurely directorial approach interrogates as well as experiments with the endless possibilities of the art form in refreshing and movingly self-reflexive ways.

Weerasethakul has always been drawn to the power and intricacies of storytelling. Nevertheless, he does not rely on structural conventions; by avoiding expository dialogues and exchanging narrative density for a looser and more instinctive flow, he bases the unfolding of the narrative on antidramatic moments of human tenderness and the ecstatic force of his imagery. Throughout his entire body of work, Weerasethakul has been exploring and testing the limits of his inventiveness by blending and incorporating myths, fables, and science fiction into reality. Witnessing the ghost of a loved one or the sparkling translucent vision of a mythical creature does not come as a shock to the characters – they quickly accept it as something ordinary. Pulling this off with such ease and modesty is a remarkable feat of confidence and mastery. It is visionary, uncompromising work that follows its own rhythm and singularities. Weerasethakul allows his films to exist and grow by themselves – there is an inherent openness to unexpected sensations and ideas that bloom from the free-flowing and everchanging narrative. Take the nuanced dichotomies of Syndromes and a Century for example, in which physical space and human relations become variations of themselves through time, or the bold examination of primordial desire, lust, fear and surrender in Tropical Malady. Weerasethakul introduces a mutating unruly world before he ultimately deconstructs it by recontextualizing the narrative. It is a fluid breathing process, one that morphs into a sensory and intellectual liberation of the viewer and the auteur himself.

This is idiosyncratic cinema that sometimes borders on esoterism but never falters. Its subtle socio-political subtext and enigmatic allegories are strengthened by the sparseness and ambiguity of Weerasethakul’s offbeat choices. Memoria is no exception. It is a slyly slippery film, at first relatively straightforward – at least compared to previous works of ostensibly denser narrative threads such as Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives – until it slowly but firmly drifts into the oneiric. Its unrefined beauty resonates with the viewer long after the film’s transporting closing moments which revel in the absence of linear diegesis. Whether casually conversational or subversively abstract, Memoria takes the form of an ‘anti-narrative’ film, albeit without fully discarding the bare bones of narrative. It even hints at a vague three-act structure before Weerasethakul mutilates and reforms it into something as disorienting and nebulous as the existential concerns at the core of the film’s thesis. It is a lyrical yet confoundingly exhilarating plunge into a feverish dream that allows for a truer depiction of life as we know it – unpredictable, perpetual, elusive.

Memoria opens with the image of the back of a sleeping woman’s head. A thunderous sonic boom abruptly awakens her. Visibly alarmed, the woman, Jessica Holland (Tilda Swinton, ghostly yet astoundingly humane), walks around her empty shadowy apartment in a befuddled lethargic state. Her clouded facial expressions betray a sense of suffocating dread. Jessica attempts to pinpoint and identify the source of this disruption, but to no avail. The deafening metallic bang hovers over the entirety of the film threatening to devour the protagonist and her surroundings with abyssal fury. Did she dream of this bone-chilling sound? Was it a figment of her imagination? When Jessica realizes that she is the sole recipient of the otherworldly reverberation (unbeknownst to her, we, the viewers, are able to listen to it too), she seems utterly lost and fear stricken. The eerie rumble unsettles Jessica’s consciousness; interactions are shadowed by its aggressive repetitiousness – each disturbance disorients the woman’s sense of time and place.

A British expatriate who specializes in orchidology, Jessica is visiting Bogotá in order to recover from unspeakable personal grief and take care of her ailing sister (Agnes Brekke) who has been suffering from a mysterious sickness. During her search for the origins of the sonic boom, she comes across and converses with various people who may or may not be real: family members, random acquaintances, and kind but sibylline strangers. Each encounter grows more tender yet more cryptic. Weerasethakul’s embrace of the imaginary and the mystic soaks the images in suggestiveness and intrigue. When Jessica’s hospitalized sister reveals that she has been dreaming of a vengeful dying dog, the images provoked by her description seem to be repeated in real time when Jessica realizes that she is being followed by a stray canine at nighttime. One wonders if this is a coincidence, a variation, the expression of Jessica’s untamed subconscious, or a cosmic joke. Later in the film, Jessica meets Agnes (Jeanne Balibar, radiant and subtly playful), an anthropologist who quickly befriends her. When Agnes guides Jessica through her laboratory, the latter is immediately drawn to a bizarre hole in the skull of an examined skeleton, allegedly performed by a tribe as a rite of exorcism. A crucial encounter with a sound engineer, Hernán (Juan Pablo Urrego), impels Jessica to ask for his help in recreating a sound that might resemble the sonic source of her somnambulant condition. After browsing and mixing a remarkably varied collection of audio files, Hernán manages to create a sound effect that roughly approaches the disquieting bang that has caused Jessica so much anguish. Despite her initial surprise, Jessica quickly realizes the sound effect’s inherent artificiality. Her face darkens – a sign of defeat by the fruitlessness of her quest. Frustrated and puzzled by her condition, Jessica aimlessly wanders the streets and institutions of Bogotá without any willpower. A few days later, she returns to Hernán’s sound studio. The man has mysteriously disappeared. Has Jessica lost touch with reality? She wonders if she only dreamed of their interactions.

When Agnes invites Jessica to visit her at a remote excavation site, the narrative becomes even sparser and more enigmatic; the misty mountainous landscape of Pijao and lush Amazon jungles lull Jessica into the realm of the abstract. Dreams, myths, and fantasy crawl into the motionlessness and rigidity of modern life, tampering with one’s perception and turning reality into a blurred fusion of hallucinations and apparitions. During a walk in the wilderness, Jessica encounters a solitary farmer (Elkin Díaz) by chance. His name is Hernán. Jessica is startled by the apparent coincidence. Weerasethakul imbues the proceedings with a sense of ambiguity in regard to the identity of the man. The hermit could be the older version of the sound engineer with the same moniker – a man from the future. Hernán tells Jessica that he possesses the power of clairvoyance. The psychic gift of recalling memories from the invisible and intangible traces ingrained in any object – stones, foliage, heirlooms – has denied him the ability to dream. Comprising the entirety of the latter half of the film, the interaction between the botanist and the farmer beguilingly immerses the viewer into an ethereal euphoric state. It is an astonishing sequence to watch – a hallucinatory manipulation of the senses that simmers with intensity, floating between the indecipherable and the profoundly relatable. The world becomes less concrete, less stable – instead, it resembles a dream: anarchic, elastic, mercurial. A humanist declaration and a spiritual awakening, Memoria’s unforced lyricism and openness bring to mind the poetic earthiness of Cemetery of Splendour, in which a stroll of strangers across the ruins of an ancient palace leads to spiritual ascension and emotional clarity.

Memoria partly marks a departure for Weerasethakul – at least in terms of shooting locations and collaborators. This is the first time he shoots a feature film outside his native country of Thailand and works with an international cast and crew. These external and peripheral elements do not affect the director’s artistic sensibilities or conventionalize his vision. Memoria is as boldly singular and wholly uncompromising as the rest of his work. There is no conformity – if anything, Weerasethakul further expands on the themes that have always preoccupied his oeuvre: the plasticity and relativity of time; the fleetingness of memory; man’s inherent tendency to violence; the randomness of life; the weight of the past; the vague boundaries between the invisible and the perceptible; the stark defiant nature of man; the importance of human connection.

Jessica acts as Weerasethakul’s stand-in. She is an outsider – a foreigner in a foreign land whose natural curiosity, aloofness, and sense of displacement feed the elliptical narrative. Her physical frailty is palpable – slowly merging with the surroundings, her paleness feels inseparable from the washed-out greyness of the urban space. She seems to have been reduced to nothing more than a shadow of herself – a rambling, ghostly entity. Each unearthly vibration caused by the repetitive bang rolls like a thundering echo of nothingness, underlining the futility of Jessica’s endeavours and engulfing her with despair. There are some notable similarities between Jessica and other emblematic cinematic heroines tormented by existential anxiety such as Giuliana and Carol White, the protagonists of Michelangelo Antonioni’s Red Desert (1964) and Todd Haynes’ Safe (1995), respectively. The phantom itinerant figure of Jessica subtly brings to mind the work of Pedro Costa as well – a somatic expressionist cinema of wandering bodies seeking a hideaway from the punishing reality. These films tell stories of disillusionment and exile; spiritual apparitions, unnervingly clinical interiors, desolate industrial landscapes, or chiaroscuro images of urban decay flood the frames, deforming and isolating the presence of man.

One of Weerasethakul’s most riveting choices was to give his protagonist the name of another film character, that of the beleaguered somnambulant wife in Jacques Tourneur’s transgressive I Walked with a Zombie (1943). Suffering from an unknown condition, Tourneur’s Jessica Holland is an otherworldly creature: melancholy, fragile and utterly silent. She is entranced by an intangible force or entity. Weerasethakul’s version of Jessica Holland is affected by a similarly enigmatic condition that may feel more concrete in terms of its form – that of a deafening recurrent noise – but remains just as vague regarding its origins. Loosely inspired by the director’s exploding head syndrome, a parasomnia sleep disorder consisting of unreal and abnormally loud sonic explosions in the sleeper’s head, the sound persistently creeps into Jessica’s consciousness, unbalancing her daily life. Its hollow aggressive rumbling taints moments of pleasing calmness. Eventually, Jessica gets used to the disturbance caused by the relentless bang. At that crucial point of acceptance and conciliation, the film abandons any semblance of conventional storytelling and dives into dream logic.

Weerasethakul’s use of physical space is significant. An urban maze of unyielding buildings, Bogotá resembles a jungle of concrete as enticing and disquieting as the rural space where the cathartic climactic moments of the film unfurl. The city is strangely hostile towards its residents, looming over them like a shadow – impersonal, rigid, suffocating. The barren architecture reinforces the sense of alienation, detachment, and ennui that plagues modern life. Jessica appears to be sleepwalking through empty institutional spaces, gloomy hospital wards and alarmingly quiet public squares. Each carefully curated image is infused with otherworldly incertitude. The bleakness of the urban environment is disrupted by invigorating interludes of human bonding. Detours from the banality of contemporary life take place in spaces that are inherently linked to education, art, and science: university halls, art galleries, laboratories, sound studios. In one of the most transporting and poignant scenes of the film, Jessica and a bunch of strangers are watching the live performance of a jazz band. The improvisations of the musicians build to a crescendo of unparalleled emotion, providing a fleeting moment of transcendence to Jessica who seems to be briefly awakened from her (physical and psychological) numbness.

Nature can be as suffocating and threatening as city life – there is no idealization of the bucolic here. What it does provide is freer space for contemplation and adjustment. This is not the first time Weerasethakul marries the earthly with the imaginary and the arcane. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives and Cemetery of Splendour similarly examine the symbiosis of parallel and (seemingly) colliding dimensions. Jessica, a somnambulist who seems to be (re)living a fragmented cacophonous dream, is caught somewhere in between, trapped in a liminal state. There is a continuous negotiation between the world of the living and the realm of the spirits. Gods casually appear in human form and engage unaware mortals in conversation; spectral visions mislead or look after desperate men; the dead take the form of supernatural beings. Weerasethakul finds a delicate balance between the eccentric and the grounded, rejecting the tropes of exoticism.

Several scenes are dedicated to the art of observing (exhibits, architecture, artefacts, landscapes, and people). Jessica simultaneously operates as the observer – an unsettling moment finds her gazing at paintings of abstract faceless beings, as if in a trance – and the observed. The more she attempts to grasp the temporality and variability of the world, the closer we get to discovering her. Weerasethakul refuses any form of narrative stability. He unlocks the characters and displays their nuanced inwardness to the viewer without demystifying them. By sustaining the ambiguity of Jessica’s interiority until the very end of the film, he introduces a hermeneutic method that encourages a purely subjective and personal approach of the film’s semantics. Trauma is implied – it shifts from the individual to the collective (and vice versa). The complexity of the long process of healing and physical (sensory) and spiritual (re)awakening is not sacrificed in favor of a mere psychological study. The interpretative fluidity may cause an alienating effect by keeping the viewer at a distance, but it allows for a less preconceived and deeper exploration of the sensate. This multi-layered abstractness creates a sense of ubiquity which is further pushed by Weerasethakul’s ambitious spatiotemporal experimentations in the latter half of the film.

Weerasethakul’s prowess lies in the discipline and commitment to the authenticity of his idiosyncratic vision. The rhythm and visual language of his films – the slower pace; the static shots; the obsession with the unearthly – are not limited to specific formalist patterns. Weerasethakul’s branch of formalism is wholly singular and ever-changing – it intentionally contradicts itself by subverting, modifying, and enriching its own syntax. His modus operandi consists of tracing and keenly following the rhythm of the art piece regardless of conventional assessments. This is minimalist meditative cinema that pays attention to the smallest details and the unseen – an ode to the embracing of the unknown. A shot could linger long after the completion of the act allowing the image to unfold unhurriedly and soak the viewer in its contemplative suggestiveness. Therein lies the eminence of his cinema. It is easy to identify Weerasethakul’s influence on arthouse cinema although the distinctive qualities of his work often end up being misinterpreted or flimsily explored by his contemporaries. Indeed, several new filmmakers have attempted to imitate the common qualities of the so-called ‘slow cinema’ – a condescending, limiting and ill-advised term that has been used unsuccessfully by scholars and critics alike – by reducing them to mere aesthetics: ambiguity for the sake of ambiguity; a new-found fascination with the spiritual; narrative ellipses and languorous thematic development. These elements lack subtext – their use turns out to be solely decorative.

Tilda Swinton’s work in the film is nothing short of revelatory. Instead of succumbing to actorly tendencies to overemote or overemphasize the transformation the character undergoes, she avoids explaining and, therefore, simplifying the intricate material she’s been handed. It is an anti-performance of sorts, the opposite of what conventional acting is assumed or expected to be. Swinton sheds any semblance of performing by just being. In a way, by non-acting – at least in the traditional sense – she reaches the apex of her art and redefines it. It is a rewarding experiment for an artist of Swinton’s stature, but also for a director who had only worked with untrained nonprofessional actors before. Perfectly in sync with the director’s atypical and radical approach, Swinton diffuses the character with compassion and care; every action or reaction brims with emotion resulting in a remarkably natural and organic interpretation of Weerasethakul’s philosophical treatise. She crafts a character who is an essential element of the story – she is often shown at the center of the frame – but not always its focal point. She does regain her autonomy – within the frame and the narrative – when she is the least self-conscious. This happens when her senses are finally in sync with the physical and spiritual space around her. It is a moment of metamorphosis. Jessica makes peace with herself through her attunement with nature, the past, and the others. This is unshowy elusive work of deep humility and intimacy. The artist’s naturalness strips the storytelling down to its bare essentials. Weerasethakul and Swinton discover the character along the way by peeling the layers off and unearthing the self beneath.

Memoria is fundamentally built on contrasts: dream and reality; life and death; city and nature; past and present; fact and fiction. Each antithesis is closely examined and deconstructed. Weerasethakul questions any definite line that distinguishes one abstract term from another. The director splits the narrative into a loose collection of cryptic vignettes; every fragment of the storytelling appears to be informed or distorted by an earlier conversation, event and (in)action – a variation, repetition, or expansion of a former element. This circular movement of narrative and images – a common thread in Weerasethakul’s oeuvre that hasn’t felt this piercingly present since the oneiric Syndromes and a Century – enhances the unpredictability and metatextuality of the piece. Its interconnectedness reflects how the past communicates with the present and dreams interfere with reality. It reconstructs one’s impression of the self and others.

Weerasethakul doesn’t veer away from the political. A deeper dive into his work reveals a remarkably complex socio-political commentary against the oppression of his people – the current political climate in Thailand is as uncertain as ever – and the nation’s history of violence. It comes as no surprise then that he chose Colombia – another long-suffering country – as the main shooting location for Memoria. Colombia isn’t used as a generic setting for the story; it is elevated to what may be the film’s most important and elusive aspect. When Weerasethakul bade farewell to his homeland in Cemetery of Splendour, he closed the film on a bittersweet note. Despite the sense of regret and disillusionment, one could identify the director’s faith in the community of his people. This sentiment can also be felt in Memoria, in which foreigners and locals share a mutual understanding of their condition and past. The brutality of man and its unending horrors are echoed by narrative and visual details that might go unnoticed: the presence of the military; random audio files containing the recordings of human torture; and the retelling of stories about death and separation. Echoes of colonialism haunt the proceedings albeit scarcely and implicitly. Jessica could have been the epitome of the guilt-ridden foreigner – a ‘trendy’ topic in contemporary art cinema that is often mishandled and superficially explored – but Weerasethakul avoids generalizations and clumsy symbolism. Memory becomes perceptible in the form of sound or touch – a sonic or somatic imprint of the past. It reverberates with the passing of time, binding and relativizing temporal impressions. The past can be felt on every object, face, or story – it remains active, resilient, cautionary, ever-present. Weerasethakul often uses holes and tunnels as forms of transmission for the signals of the past as well as gateways to the realm of the unseen. When Jessica meets the secluded farmer, the past, the present, and the future are finally amalgamated into something undefined, loose, and abstract.

Humans are not separated from their surroundings – they are a vital breathing part of them. The neutrality of Jessica’s character is crucial – she is easily adaptable in the world around her. At first, she seems to be absorbed by the pale homogeneity of the city although fleeting moments of connection – whether they be conversations or emotional and/or intellectual responses to works of art – revitalize her sense of being before she falls into sombreness again. When she loses her sense of time and space in the Amazon jungle, there is an ambience of impending danger not dissimilar to the urban bleakness beforehand. Even when the intrigue of the mystic dissolves into pastoral sublimity, a sense of uneasiness lingers. And yet the openness of the rural landscape, in all its rustic rawness and metaphysical implications, turns into a space for reconciliation with oneself and healing. When two strangers hold hands and share their memories, the humanist cinema of Weerasethakul finds its most profound and moving form of expression. The conceptual originality of the scene is delivered without a trace of pompousness or heavy-handedness. Human connection is at the centre of it, highlighting the beauty of camaraderie and bonding. It is a transcendent moment that revels in its simplicity and modesty. The wondrous interweaves with the mundane. Weerasethakul’s cinema is the cinema of the miraculous. “What’s wrong with my eyes? They are open but I can’t see a thing”, the titular character mutters in Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives. In Cemetery of Splendour, the protagonist intensely gazes at an excavation site in an attempt to reconstruct the world of the unliving through her imagination. In the closing moments of Memoria, an emotionally charged but relieved Jessica looks out of the window in a state of tranquility. She has experienced the memory of another person in a way that transcends the perceptible. She is alert, open, awake, liberated from the constraints of the earthly. This is the essence of Weerasethakul’s cinema: the extraordinary is interwoven with the mundane. Reality is nothing but a construct – a mirage.