Director: Apichatpong Weerasethakul
Stars: Tilda Swinton, Elkin Diaz, Juan Pablo Urrago
In the second half of Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s remarkable and beguiling Memoria, a man named Hernán Bedoya (Elkin Diaz) lies down in the Colombian grass to sleep at the behest of nomadic quester Jessica (Tilda Swinton). In a shot mildly reminiscent of Dea Kulumbegashvili’s Beginning, we rest on him as he rests, rapt in the stillness that’s long been established throughout the film. Experiencing this scene, I found that the forms of Hernán and the grass started to disperse. I unlearned the image and felt as though parts of it were moving, dismantled into disconnected (or extremely connected) shape, texture and colour. It felt like an exceedingly personal reaction to the scene, but I was surprised and intrigued to learn that my companion for the screening experienced exactly the same thing.
Such is the strange magic of Memoria, Apichatpong’s first feature film made outside of his native Thailand, but firmly in the tradition of the work that preceded it. Themes of convalescence and transcendence remain at the heart of his work, and working with a known star (Swinton) hasn’t tempted this filmmaker to curb his taste for contemplative, slowly transformative cinema. Indeed, the humid and jungleous topography of Colombia tessellates well with the cinema of his roots.
At the beginning of the film Jessica is visiting Bogotá, where her sister Karen (Agnes Brekke) is hospitalised with an unspecified complaint. She is woken in the night by a loud thumping sound that she can best describe as like a concrete ball dropping into a well. Though ostensibly looking to start-up a flower farm in her home in Medellín, Jessica becomes increasingly diverted by this sound.
Meeting another, younger man also named Hernán Bedoya (Juan Pablo Urrago) – a sound engineer – Jessica first attempts recreating the noise which repeatedly disturbs her waking life, before searching more concertedly for it’s source.
Sense-memory could be one explanation, and this idea is threaded through the piece. Out in the Bogotá streets, a man flattens to the floor at the sound of a bus backfiring, mistaking the noise for a gunshot; a flight or fight response that keys into the man’s survival instincts and evident past trauma. Sound and action woven intrinsically together. At dinner one evening, Jessica is presented with another alternative; perhaps it is emitted from the depths of the Amazon as part of a tribal spell that she is acutely sensitive to? While a visit to the doctor (a formal echo of past Apichatpog features Mysterious Object at Noon, Blissfully Yours and Syndromes of a Century) remind us that this could all be an hallucination. And, as the passing of time becomes a liquid concern, one wonders if the sound might be prophetic, projected from Jessica’s own future destiny.
Anyone who has previously encountered this director’s work will already be attuned to the syncopatic rhythms utilised to place an audience in an engaged state of calm, and so it goes again here. Memoria is precisely edited to a particular ebb and flow, lulling it’s viewer to a different temperament, one more suited to the reflective nature of both it’s protagonist and creator. Swinton is often restful, still or contemplative but that shouldn’t be mistaken for inert or inactive. Her Jessica is ever-present even in stasis, and the film charts a kind of slow sync between this tourist and her surroundings. And, perhaps more pertinently, the universe.
Toward the end of the picture – just when it appears as though the ineffable might remain so – a bold gesture is given; one that changes the dimension of the whole and may well throw some viewers with it’s directness. Apichatpong tilts to genres hitherto unexpected in defining his mystery. But, even so, this move makes the whole feel even slipperier. It’s a deliciously leftfield stroke.
In this context, Memoria could conceivably be interpreted as a radical reinterpretation of Nicolas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth, right down to it’s slippery relationship to the passing of time. Those who have long pined for Swinton to appear in a Bowie role might have finally gotten their wish, albeit reconfigured in such a way that they may not even notice it themselves.
With sound of key concern to Jessica, it’s no surprise that the sound design of the film is as pitch-perfectly adjudicated as it’s mesmeric pace. Jessica’s phantom menace is interjected into supressed quietude with the impact of a popcorn horror flick jump scare, while her connectivity with Hernán toward the end of the picture proves revelatory; a fizzing micro-climate of transmissions intercepted by the two of them in an aura of extra-bodily entwinement. I feel like Jessica herself, struggling to muster the words to describe her auditory shadow, creating poetic mixtures of words in search of shape and definition.
With Jessica’s quest in mind, one might consider Memoria to be Apichatpong’s most narratively driven feature to date. This is true only to degrees. Newcomers may find their patience tested. So be it. The patience required for this journey is minor due to its inherently stirring questions. Even when in ‘rest mode’, Memoria agitates and provokes the viewer with ponderances. If this Thai master can illicit the same strange response in two individuals experiencing his work, it perhaps speaks to a more wide-swept ability to shuttle audiences to new places where our experiences of film are collectively transformed. Here’s to Apichatpong’s particular method of interstellar travel.