Tilda Swinton is haunted by a mysterious sound in the otherwise quiet and meditative “Memoria”, the evocative new drama from director, writer, and producer Apichatpong Weerasethakul. This is Weerasethakul’s first movie made outside his native Thailand, but those familiar with his work will almost instantly notice his distinct style of storytelling.
I was fortunate enough to see “Memoria” thanks to NEON’s awards season screener bundle. Otherwise it’s going to be a tough movie to catch. From what I understand, Weerasethakul has no plan for a physical home release or even a conventional theater run. Instead he’s taking his film on the road for a long run of week-long engagements at different stops across the country. It’s an unusual release strategy and one that’s certain to cost him some viewers. But at the same time, “Memoria” isn’t the kind of movie aimed at large crowds.
“Memoria” is a movie that defies definition. You could consider it a sensory journey that isn’t interested in plot as much as experience. Weerasethakul wants his audience to feel. But to do so will require viewers to get on his unique and unconventional wavelength. Admittedly, at first I found that to be a challenge. But once I was in tune with his patient and observant rhythm, “Memoria” turned into something I wasn’t expecting. Soon I found myself swept up by feelings of fascination, bewilderment, curiosity and full-on admiration.
You could also consider it slow cinema. Some will be quick to assert that often “nothing happens”, a perspective that Weerasethakul’s style partially contributes to. In many cases his scenes aren’t simply long takes, but they extend to well after the scene’s action has finished. Rather than cutting, Weerasethakul keeps his camera locked in place, allowing his audience time to soak up every detail of the frame. And as we do, not only are he pulled deeper into the film’s beguiling mystery, but Weerasethakul slyly put us into a similar headspace as the film’s central character, Jessica (Tilda Swinton).
I’m not sure any actress could be more fitting for this role than Swinton. She is perfectly tuned into Weerasethakul’s enigmatic frequency and she effectively channels the very apprehension and incertitude that we the audience also feel. Interestingly, everything about her character Jessica feels out of place. First, she’s a Scottish botanist living in Medellín, Columbia (the movie’s most overt sign of displacement). But she comes across as more than a foreigner in a new country. She conveys this perpetual sense of lostness, like someone trying to get a hold of the world she’s in.
The movie opens with Jessica shaken from her sleep by a jolting boom in the middle of the night. It’s a mysterious sound that she later describes as “a big ball of concrete that falls into a metal wall which is surrounded by seawater“. She travels to Bogotá to visit her sister Karen (Agnes Brekke) who is hospitalized with a sudden illness. While there she hears the sound again and realizes that only she can hear it. Later Jessica is shaken again by the sound as she sits in an otherwise quiet park at night.
Not only do the mystifying whomps startle Jessica, but they jar us as well thanks to the film’s exquisite sound design. Soon the film’s gaunt, soft-spoken, and curious protagonist sets out (with us in tow) to determine the source of the assaultive sound in her head. A music professor friend connects her with Hernán (Juan Pablo Urrego), a sound engineer who tries to recreate the sound for Jessica. He succeeds but it doesn’t get us any closer to the sound’s source. “I think I’m going crazy,” she tells a friend.
As Jessica continues her search we’re fed very little in the form of answers. That’ll come as no surprise to those familiar with Weerasethakul’s work. But that doesn’t mean Jessica’s journey is empty or meaningless. Quite the opposite. It gets back to what I mentioned above – this is more about experiencing. There is an answer to the big question in the final few shots (an answer that I’m still chewing on days after seeing the film). But ultimately it’s about getting to that point. It’s about joining Jessica on her lonely melancholy peregrination. But to do so you have to still your mind, watch and listen. That’s where the real joy of Weerasethakul’s entrancing film is to be found.