In eminent Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s latest feature, Memoria, central character Jessica (Tilda Swinton), a British expat living in Colombia, finds herself attending a last-ditch medical consultation. She explains to the attending physician that she hasn’t been able to sleep at night due to an increasingly persistent banging sound of indeterminate origin—and she wonders if a pill could be prescribed to calm her nerves? The physician all but refuses, offering two wildly different salves for her auditory predicament: She can either seek solace in Jesus, or the exquisite Salvador Dalí painting hanging in the building’s lobby.
Both options register as ludicrous compared to the prospect of a nightly Xanax, however, the tangible presence of spiritual and surreal forces is an essential tenet of Weerasethakul’s work. Without divulging specific narrative details, the film’s unfurling is closely tied to the fact that Jessica’s sonic affliction is concurrent with the progression of a century-long project to bore a hole through the adjacent Andes mountain range. Although Memoria’s Latin American location, English/Spanish-language dialogue and big-city backdrop indicate a major shift in Weersethakul’s feature filmmaking practice, it remains emblematic of his penchant for applying the metaphysical properties of lucid dreams and inherited memories to otherwise quotidian human experiences.
In his 2010 opus Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, Weerasethakul achieves this duality through inserting benevolent (if foreboding) familial ghosts and red-eyed monkey spirits into the otherwise peaceful account of a sick man’s final hours on Earth. His films Tropical Malady (2006), Mekong Hotel (2012) and Cemetery of Splendor (2015) also deal with supernatural specters, while Mysterious Objects at Noon (2000), Blissfully Yours (2002) and Syndromes and a Century (2006) incorporate a more subtle sense of mysticism. Yet all of his work toys with open interpretations of memory and history, whether it be the relationship between the director’s real-life physician parents or the enduring legacy of the surrealist-created “exquisite corpse” word game.
Perhaps this is why Memoria immediately feels steeped in the enduring wounds of colonialism, environmental devastation and civil wars within Colombia’s past—and their enduring ramifications on the country’s present. The legend of El Dorado is what first drew conquistadors en masse to pillage this region of the Andes mountains within modern-day Colombia, mirrored in Memoria by way of European archaeologists tunneling their way through the same land to exhume the decaying remnants of this population. The excavation depicted in the film also parallels the 2017 discovery (though only made public last year) of elaborate prehistoric cave paintings within the nearby Colombian section of the Amazon rainforest, similarly supported by British researchers. Yet the cacophonous bump in the night that haunts Jessica is wholly enigmatic; it is not rooted in concrete concepts of time, place or consequence—existing in an inexplicable spatial realm much like Dali’s wilting camembert clocks.
Though the descriptor of “surreal” predominantly suggests the presence of visual uncanniness, Memoria platforms a thoroughly surreal soundscape above all else. The sterile interiors of hospital rooms, recording studios and warehouses appear eerie and empty in the wake of Jessica’s obsessive search for answers, particularly due to the echoes produced by each space’s sparse contents. As her drive to understand the strange sound’s source intensifies, Jessica strays further outside of the city limits, leaning less on her native English tongue as her surroundings become more pastoral. Swinton’s Spanish—somewhat amateurish but impressively well-communicated—also offers an unsuspected auditory layer to the film, her voice both recognizable and alien at once. While the discordant banging that trails Jessica into her (day)dreams is the sound that propels the plot, the audible minutiae of city and rural living are also beautifully highlighted. A symphony of car alarms, backfiring bus engines and sidewalk sales seep into dialogue and character interactions in Bogotá; a provincial chorus of howler monkeys, fish descaling and babbling brooks emphasize the serenity of the neighboring jungle.
Ahead of Memoria’s public screening at the New York Film Festival, its distributor Neon stated that the film would have an unusual theatrical release schedule. Instead of screening for an allotted amount of time nationwide, it will instead embark on a cinematic tour of America, beginning in New York City at the IFC Center on December 26—playing one screen at one theater for one week at a time thereafter. Neon also stated that there is no intention to ever release the title physically or via streaming platforms, meaning that the theatrical experience is the sole way viewers can interact with the work. This is evocative of the director’s involvement with installation art projects alongside his cinematic career, which makes the decision more sensible than some might believe. Though the practice is certainly restrictive when it comes to the film’s accessibility to audiences on a national scale, Memoria’s incorporation of sonic entities—both clamorous and susurrate—is powerful in its sensory force, uniquely realized through carefully calibrated surround sound. However, the country is still in the midst of a pandemic, and the belligerent insistence on theater attendance ahead of new releases is appropriately tiresome to many.
Conversely, the potential for a director to completely control the trajectory of their project would do good to exist without overwhelming derision when the avenues for film production and distribution are ever-dwindling. When it comes to Weerasethakul’s overarching oeuvre, outrage is far from unfamiliar: Most notably, the Thai Censorship Board demanding that Syndromes and a Century remove certain “sensitive” scenes ahead of its release. The filmmaker refused, instead opting to voluntarily remove it from circulation in Thailand altogether. Arguably, the ability to attend a particular arthouse screening is somewhat less vital than the capacity to create and present one’s art free of institutional interference—although there does exist an onus on Neon and Weerasethakul to exhibit this film as far and wide as possible if it truly is eschewing traditional means of audience engagement.
The politics of Memoria and Weersethakul’s broader filmmaking practice are intentional yet enigmatic, offering kernels of thought without immediately discernible exposition. This is what makes his films so ethereal and affecting—vivid and vague at once, it is facile to transfer one’s own subliminal anxieties, desires and hazy vision to seemingly sparse narratives. Memoria does feel like a significant departure from the director’s previous work—despite the director’s continued investment in withholding tangible resolution—by way of the film’s fantastical, exhilarating climax and comparatively linear mystery-driven storyline. There is still a sense of dreamlike suspension, just on the precipice of decipherable revelation. Time melts beyond its tangible limits when watching Memoria, resulting in an audiovisual trance disorienting in its peculiar placidity.
Director: Apichatpong Weerasethakul
Writer: Apichatpong Weerasethakul
Stars: Tilda Swinton, Elkin Díaz, Agnes Brekke, Daniel Giménez Cacho, Jeanne Balibar, Juan Pablo Urrego
Release Date: December 26, 2021 (Neon)
Natalia Keogan is a freelance film writer based in Queens, New York. Her work has been featured in Paste Magazine, Blood Knife Magazine and Filmmaker Magazine, among others. Find her on Twitter @nataliakeogan