Credit: Neon
by Ryan Swen Featured Film Spotlight

Memoria | Apichatpong Weerasethakul

December 23, 2021

Memoria is another masterwork from Apichatpong Weerasethakul, a slow unfurling of personal and nationals pasts that challenges and entrances in equal measure.

Frequent In Review Online contributor Evan Morgan once posited a more refined version of the slow cinema paradigm that has come to dominate festival films over the past two decades: hammock cinema, in which films that appear to reject storytelling actually rely on a tightly woven narrative structure, upon which the more readily apparent free-floating atmosphere and extended shots are given an elegance and order. His lodestar is Apichatpong Weerasethakul, quite probably the most important director to make his debut in this century. Despite boasting just six fully-fledged feature films in twenty years, the Thai director has exerted an enormous influence on festival cinema, with his use of forested landscapes and unconventional story structures deployed in order to create a sense of the somnambulant that’s inextricable from his interest in the supernatural and the violent past of his nation.

Six years since his last film Cemetery of Splendour, Apichatpong has returned with Memoria, his first film set outside of Thailand, with professional actors, and in a foreign language, or rather two — Spanish and English. It follows Jessica (Tilda Swinton), a British orchidologist living in Colombia who, while visiting Bogotá, begins to hear a mysterious, loud, thudding sound at seemingly random moments. Her interactions weave in and out of relation with this developing affliction, including with her temporarily bedridden sister (Agnes Brekke), her brother-in-law (Daniel Giménez Cacho, of Zama fame), a forensic archaeologist named Agnes (Jeanne Balibar), and Hernán (Juan Pablo Urrego), a sound engineer. In an especially hypnotic scene in a film practically filled with nothing else, he helps Jessica recreate the sound that has been haunting her, working from a movie sound effects library and shifting the echo, bass, and shape of the wave to form, in Jessica’s words, “a rumble from the core of the earth.”

As might be suggested by this, Memoria focuses on a single main character to a greater degree than any of his previous films; even while Jenjira Pongpas served as the pensive anchor of four of his previous films, her presence was intertwined and mixed with various other focal points. Befitting her arthouse star status, Swinton, in easily her greatest performance in years, takes the center stage for practically every scene in at least the first half of the film. Her signature, slightly alien presence, which has admittedly run the risk of parody in recent years, is wondrously molded by Apichatpong; in the first scene, when she is awoken by the loud noise, her movement suggests a ghost, or perhaps a zombie — it’s notable that Jessica shares the same name as the ethereal figure of Jacques Tourneur’s iconic I Walked With a Zombie. Her manner of movement, lithe but tentative, frequently blending into the environment during the many long shots, only accentuates an acute difference in setting from the endless Thai forests: in the first half of the film, there is a new, pronounced focus on architecture and the city, shown both with teeming throngs of people and at a standstill. 

Working again with regular DP Sayombhu Mukdeeprom and on 35mm for the first time since Syndromes and a Century, Apichatpong finds the shifting textures in these spaces, in the unpredictable dance of light that gives further shape to the series of strange incidents peppered throughout: a backfiring bus that causes a pedestrian to drop to the ground, car horns that go off for no apparent reason, a hospital bench as a makeshift lock. In response, his style has shifted somewhat: there is a greater emphasis on duration, on a certain kind of pensive distance that his disciples from afar have adopted. But this is unmistakably Apichatpong, not only in his total willingness to vary his approach as the shot and scene necessitates, but in the rich sense of character and circumstance, each scene and camera placement contributing, whether elliptically or directly, to a sense of the world that this woman is inhabiting and attempting to understand.

About the second half, which is solely made up of an encounter Jessica has in the rural municipality of Pijao with a mysterious man (Elkin Díaz), the less said the better. Suffice it to say that this last hour is one of the most extraordinary, focused, and sustained sequences of the past decade, a slow unfurling of personal and national pasts that intermingle and mutate, conveyed via the most entrancing of means. It all comes back to the sound: not only that indescribable slam, but also the snatches of music, the vaguely unsettling ambiance. If one of the principal pleasures of a hammock is how it can sway in the wind, then it can be said that Apichatpong understands precisely how to capture the essence of that entrancing motion.

Originally published as part of TIFF 2021 — Dispatch 4.