A Fortnightly Review.
Dir. Apichatpong Weerasethakul
2021 | PG | 2h 16m | UK release 14 January 2022
By SIMON COLLINGS.
FROM ITS OPENING moments, Memoria plunges us into a world of mystery. It begins with a long, static shot of the inside of a room at night. It’s difficult to make out what we are looking at. Then a loud bang, hard and metallic, thuds into the silence. A figure sits up, as if in a trance, and slowly gets out of bed. The camera pans left to what looks like a door through which a woman seems to enter, creating a moment of disorientation before we realise we’re looking at a reflection in a mirror. As the camera shifts further left we see the woman opening a pair of sliding doors and moving into a second room, where she stands gazing out of the window.
The woman is Jessica Holland (Tilda Swinton), who is staying in Colombia’s capital, Bogotá, because her sister Karen (Agnes Brekke) is in hospital with an unexplained illness.1 From scant biographical details fleetingly revealed in the film, we gradually piece together the identities of the main protagonists. Karen’s partner Juan (Daniel Giménez Cacho) is an academic and they have a young child. Jessica, recently widowed, has a farm near Medellín where she grows orchids. We learn little more about her. This is not a family drama, nor is it a psychological thriller.
‘Jessica gives little away,’ Swinton says in an interview recorded at the New York Film Festival in 2021.2 She is not so much ‘a character as a predicament’, someone who has this sound in her head and wants to understand where it comes from. Jessica’s initial hypothesis about the noise is that it originated from a construction site, but Juan says there is no building work near their house. As the film progresses, her search for an explanation draws her into a more and more complex world of myth, dream and hallucination.
MEMORIA IS APICHATPONG Weerasethakul’s first English-language film (it also includes dialogue in Spanish), and is his first feature to be set outside of Thailand. He and Swinton had long wanted to work on a film together. They first met at Cannes in 2004 where Swinton was a member of the panel that awarded the Jury Prize to Weerasethakul’s Tropical Malady. They subsequently collaborated on a film festival in Thailand, and on some short films. But from early on Swinton was uncomfortable about making a feature in Thailand. Almost all Weerasethakul’s work explores Thai cultural and political history, territory where Swinton feared she would be lost. They decided to look for somewhere unfamiliar, a place where they would both be disoriented, their reactions to the location becoming part of the project. After attending a film festival in Cartagena in 2017, Weerasethakul travelled for several months in Colombia. It was his first encounter with the country, but the landscape and history of conflict resonated with his experiences in Thailand, and he contacted Swinton about making the movie there.
While in Colombia, Weerasethakul developed a rare sleep disorder, called exploding head syndrome, in which the sufferer hears a loud bang, not audible to anyone else. This phenomenon is usually associated with waking or with falling asleep. The cause of the condition is not known but it may be associated with stress. This gave him the idea for Jessica’s experience in the movie.
Weerasethakul and Swinton’s project in Colombia, supported by a local crew, was to improvise around the mystery of the origin of the sound, drawing on the discoveries and connections they were making in the country. Being in an unfamiliar place meant the process of the film had to be different from previous ventures in which Weerasethakul had his own memories and those of his actors to draw on. In Colombia, the project involved a lot of observing, assimilating new experiences, attending to what was around them. Swinton describes this sense of ‘being lost’ as a ‘huge blessing’ for the film. The director says the movie is ‘fundamentally about paying attention’, both externally and internally.3
AS WITH SOME of Weerasethakul’s earlier films, Memoria has a two-part structure, though it is more subtle here than in films such as Tropical Malady (2004) and Syndromes and a Century (2006) which have an obvious bi-partite form. In Memoria, the transition between the two sections is marked by Jessica driving past an army checkpoint on her way to visit an archaeological dig. The first part of the film takes place in Bogotá, the second in a rural setting with mountains and forest.
In the first half, a young sound technician, Hernán (Juan Pablo Urrego), helps Jessica to reconstruct the boom in her head by modifying files in a library of sound effects. After working with her, he mysteriously disappears, with the engineers at the studio where he was based claiming no knowledge of him. In part two, Jessica meets an older man, also called Hernán (Elkin Díaz), who in a different way tries to help her understand the sound. He claims to be able to remember everything that has ever happened to him, has never left his village, and avoids films and TV because they would overwhelm him. Even the rocks around him have stories embedded in them which he is able to hear.4
The second part of the film is markedly more dreamlike than the first. In the rural town where she’s staying Jessica consults a local doctor about her noise problem.5 There’s a Dali painting in the clinic’s reception and Jessica suggests the Surrealist painter must have been using drugs. The doctor says she doesn’t believe this. Lots of people in the area have hallucinations, she says. Reluctantly the doctor prescribes Xanax, a tranquiliser used to treat anxiety disorders, having warned her patient that the drug will dull her awareness of the ‘beauty and sadness of the world’. When Hernán describes his intense experience of the world, Jessica jokingly suggests that the Xanax tablets might help.
This older Hernán’s anti-modern lifestyle is in sharp contrast to the high-tech world of his younger namesake. We have moved away from sound as a purely physical phenomenon measured in decibels and frequencies, into a parallel world which obeys a wholly different logic.
THE WAY THE past reverberates in the present is a recurrent theme in Weerasethakul’s work. The old man in Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010) is haunted by memories of the role he played suppressing communist insurgents in the area of northern Thailand where he lives. He now deeply regrets these actions and links them to his illness. In Cemetery of Splendour (2015), a group of soldiers afflicted with a debilitating sleepiness are being cared for in a hospital which turns out to be on the site of a former royal burial place. The spirits of the kings interred there are still at war and using the energy of the soldiers to continue their struggle. These films reflect the director’s belief that Thailand’s political and social problems can only be resolved by an open acknowledging of history. This stance has brought him into conflict with the current authorities and his work has been subject to censorship.
Travelling in Colombia, Weerasethakul heard many accounts of the way the trauma of recent conflict persists in the present. Early in the film we see a young man on a busy Bogotá street dive to the pavement, thinking he has heard gunfire, when a bus backfires, an echo of incidents from years earlier. In another scene an archaeologist shows Jessica the 6,000-year-old skull of a young girl with a hole drilled in it, perhaps to ‘let out evil spirits’. The skull has been recovered from a construction site where a new road tunnel is being cut. Jessica wonderingly inserts a finger into the hole in the cranium.
Mysterious, even supernatural, forces are often at play in the director’s work too. Karen is involved in a theatre project about an Amazonian tribe which shuns contact with the outside world. Her partner Juan thinks her illness may be linked to the unwanted attention the theatre company is bringing to these people. A group of women from the tribe are said to gather regularly to repel, through sorcery, those who try to interfere with them. A man who tried to build a road through the community’s land has vanished, along with two of his companions. While Juan is telling the story about the disappearance of the road builder, Jessica hears the violent bang in her head several times, as though the narrative is triggering a reaction in her brain.
WEERASETHAKUL STUDIED FILMMAKING at the Art Institute of Chicago from 1995 to 1997, having graduated in architecture in Thailand. He had developed a passion for cinema as a child, watching mainly local Thai films and American B movies. In Chicago he discovered experimental American cinema and became fascinated by ‘scratch’ films, created by scoring or painting the film stock rather than by filming. Len Lye’s Free Radicals (1958) was a revelation. Another influence was the cinema of Bruce Baillie, lyrical film poems constructed from footage of everyday life. He also encountered new Taiwanese cinema and the work of the Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami. From these filmmakers Weerasethakul says he learned how to see the everyday. They also taught him about montage, the use of ambient sound rather than music, and the merging of fiction and non-fiction. His own film work reflects the twin influences of mainstream narrative cinema, including soap opera, and non-narrative experimental film.
In Chicago, Weerasethakul became acquainted with Salvador Dali’s paintings, and the ‘boxes’ of Joseph Cornell, with their evocations of memory and dream. He also encountered the Surrealist game of the ‘exquisite corpse’, where an artist starts a drawing at the top of a page, folds the paper so that only the bottom of the design is visible and passes this to another artist to continue the drawing, who in turn passes it to a third, and so on. Weerasethakul used this method of collective improvisation in his first full-length film, the faux-documentary Mysterious Object at Noon (2000). Improvisatory techniques which seek to tap into cultural memories have been an element of his filmmaking ever since, and are evident in Memoria.
WEERASETHAKUL’S FILMS ARE marked by the general absence of point-of-view shots. We do not see what the people in the film are seeing. There are no shot/reverse shot sequences when people are conversing. The director instead favours middle distances, and only rarely uses close ups. Adam Szymanski, in Nocturnal Fabulations, a collection of essays on Weerasethakul, argues that the logic of the découpage (framing of shots) is ‘irrational from the point of view of the human subject and can only be accounted for through a consideration of the unknown and the unseen that are made felt in the broader ecology.’ As a result he argues: ‘The film sees beyond the actuality of any given plane of temporality and instead renders visible their mutual co-composition of the film world.’6
In the New York Film Festival interview mentioned at the beginning of this essay, Swinton talked about the way Weerasethakul sets up his frame in a manner which is highly rigorous but allows room for chance events. The long takes, she said, mean that ‘the rhythm…of the film is in the hands of the people in the frame, including the birds’. A flock of small birds appears at one point, unplanned but fortuitous. The film frequently references the processes of the natural world, with their very different durations and tempos, consciously displacing the anthropocentric viewpoint.
The ever-changing weather in Colombia fascinated Weerasethakul. One scene in the film consists simply of a fixed shot of a square in Bogotá in torrential rain. Another shows Jessica, Juan and his child leaving the house in a downpour. The point of these shots is to depict the weather, they serve no other narrative function. Geological processes are another kind of temporality embraced within the ‘ecology’ of the film. The construction of the road tunnel, where the archaeological dig is sited, involves cutting through the side of an extinct volcano, and at the end of the film we hear a news report of an earth tremor. Earlier we’ve seen Jessica walking by a stream, hearing the bang in her head and bending down as if it’s coming from seismic activity deep in the earth.
These repeated incursions of ‘otherness’, of the non-human, are critical to the way the director destabilises Jessica’s sense of the world. As Szymanski says: ‘Encounters with alterity are opportunities for surpassing established subject positions […] self and other cease to be what they were by bringing a novel event of relation into existence.’ Jessica, like Uncle Boonmee, as ‘a sensitive character in an equally sensitive film ecology’, comes to re-evaluate her sense of self.
ONE SCENE IN the film that warrants specific comment is Jessica’s vision of a spaceship lifting off from a primeval forest and accelerating away, the sonic boom it creates exactly like the sound in her head. This occurs in the sequence at the older Hernán’s house, towards the end of the film. Is the memory trace of a visit by alien beings the true explanation of this mysterious sound hallucination? Some viewers might be tempted to read the movie this way, but spaceships feature in other work by Weerasethakul. Syndrome and a Century includes a scene where two monks are playing with a remote-control flying saucer. The director worked with young people in a village in northern Thailand on the construction of a wooden spaceship as part of an installation project entitled Primitive (2009), out of which his film Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives developed.7 Hernán and Jessica have been drinking a home-distilled spirit made by Hernán, using his own selection of herbs. He describes the liquor to Jessica as bringing him ‘close to what you call dreams’. Jessica appears to be in a drug-induced trance as she accesses a series of fragmentary memories, including the image of the spaceship. Weerasethakul says the idea for the spacecraft in Memoria derives from a longstanding interest in science-fiction, and that the scene ‘could be in the past or the future’.
FOR WEERASETHAKUL, memory is not something which exists through thought alone but is also concrete and embodied. Thus his filmmaking, as Dana Linssen notes in an essay which accompanied an exhibition of the director’s work in The Netherlands in 2017, ‘is more than a way of remembering: it is a way of creating through imagery a time-space that is memory.’ One way he does this, she says: ‘is by rendering the omnipresence of time visible, or rather, palpable.’8 Érik Bordeleau, another of the contributors to Nocturnal Fabulations, makes a similar point when he writes of Weerasethakul: ‘He seems entirely devoted to making us experience the imperceptible meanderings of time’s passage, the unstable and indefinite nature of the present.’9 The rain, the movement of grass in the wind, the excavated remains at the archaeological site, the man diving to avoid an imagined gunshot, the story the older Hernán hears in a stone, all make tangible these many layers of time as they manifest in the time-space Jessica navigates.
At the beginning of his essay Bordeleau cautions against the dangers of on the one hand treating Weerasethakul’s work in a ‘mystifying or “obscurantist” manner’ and on the other of trying to ‘elucidate them unduly’. An appropriate response to the films, he suggests, needs to ‘preserve their relative opacity, their own ways of moving and proposing occasions of encounter.’
Watching a Weerasethakul film can create the feeling that you have glimpsed a wholly other way of seeing the world, something perhaps closer to the way people thought many millennia ago, or the way the indigenous people of the Amazon, shunning contact with the outside, perhaps view the world. Or possibly it’s a future form of expanded consciousness we haven’t yet attained. The effect of this is to expose the limitations of so much of the way we think, inviting an openness to other possibilities, and demanding of us a greater humility in the face of an excess of meaning in the world. It’s hard to think of another film director who achieves this effect with such mesmerising force.
SIMON COLLINGS lives in Oxford and has published poems, stories and critical essays in a range of journals including Stride, Journal of Poetics Research, Café Irreal, Tears in the Fence, Ink Sweat and Tears, Lighthouse and PN Review. Out West, his first chapbook, was published by Albion Beatnik in 2017, and a second chapbook, Stella Unframed, was released by The Red Ceilings Press in 2018. He is a contributing editor of The Fortnightly Review. His collection of short fictions, Why Are You Here?was published by our imprint, Odd Volumes, in November 2020. An archive of his work for the Fortnightly is here.
- The director’s choice of the name ‘Jessica Holland’ for Swinton’s character consciously references Jacques Tourneur’s 1943 horror movie, I Walked with a Zombie. The Jessica Holland of Tourneur’s film is the wife of a planter suffering from a mystery illness. In one scene she rises from a comatose sleep and walks in a trance towards the sound of Voodoo drumming. Weerasethakul, acknowledging the connection with the Tourneur film, says that Memoria includes ‘a lot of walks as a gesture to trace this memory.’ See the interview with Weerasethakul conducted by Rémy Jarry, Ocula magazine, 10 November 2021.
- A Q&A with Apichatpong Weerasethakul and Tilda Swinton at NYFF59 is here.
- Both Swinton’s and Weerasethakul’s remarks are from ‘The Making of Memoria with Apichatpong
Weerasethakul and Tilda Swinton’ at NYFF59. Note: This video is different from that cited above, although there is some overlap.
- Hérnan has been compared by some critics with the central character in Borges’ story ‘Funes the Memorialist’. But perhaps a better way to understand him is as someone having such a rich experience of the world he doesn’t need cinema. In an interview with the American film scholar James Quandt in 2009, Weerasethakul said: ‘A monk recently told me that meditation was like film making. He said when one meditates, one doesn’t need film. As if film was an excess. In a way he is right. Our brain is the best camera and projector. If only we can find a way to operate it properly.’ James Quandt ed., Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Vienna: Synema Publikationen, 2009.
- Weerasethakul’s parents were both doctors, he grew up in a hospital, and medical practitioners and illness feature in many of his films. While travelling around Colombia in 2017 the director visited a number of hospitals, including mental hospitals, familiar places he could connect to, and listened to the stories of patients.
- Érik Bordeleau et al., Nocturnal Fabulations: Ecology, Vitality and Opacity in the Cinema of Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Open Humanities Press, 2017. All four of the essays in this volume are worth reading for their insightful discussion of the director’s work.
- Alongside his ten feature-length works, Weeraethakul has also made many short video works for exhibition in a gallery setting. From early on in his career the director has moved seamlessly between cinema and the art world. His move into gallery-based work was prompted by Cities on the Move, a touring exhibition curated by Hans Ulrich Obrist and Hou Hanru, which showed in Bangkok in 1999. His first installation Narratives was exhibited in Japan in 2001. Weerasethakul’s website lists twenty-one installations to date. His most recent gallery-based project, which followed the filming of Memoria in 2019, is a A Minor History, a two-part installation exhibited in Bangkok.
- Dana Linssen, ‘If light was the measure of time unfolding’, in the exhibition catalogue for Locus: Apichatpong Weerasethakul – Cao Guimaraes, hosted by the EYE filmmuseum, Amsterdam, in 2017.
- Érik Bordeleau et al., Nocturnal Fabulations.