Directed by: Apichatpong Weerasethakul | 136 minutes | drama, science fiction | Actors: Tilda Swinton, Elkin Díaz, Jeanne Balibar, Juan Pablo Urrego, Daniel Giménez Cacho, Agnes Brekke, Jerónimo Barón, Constanza Gutierrez
What is that low buzzing bang that Jessica hears every now and then and others around her don’t? Although the Scottish tourist, passing through Colombia, does not really suffer, she is shocked every time, as if something unpleasant is creeping into her body through the eardrums. Thus, the timid Jessica embarks on a closely-listening journey of self-discovery through the forest-rich South American country. You can say a lot about ‘Memoria’, but the new film by the enigmatic Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul can hardly be pinned down to anything, least of all logic. So turn off the “I want to get it” position before you step into this poetic cinematic experience.
‘Memoria’ is by no means the only film in which characters search for the origin of a highly subjective experience of something. For example, in ‘Blow-Up’ (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1966), fashion photographer Thomas becomes obsessed with an extremely shadowy photograph, and in ‘The Conversation’ (Francis Ford Coppola, 1974) the sound engineer Harry Caul almost drowns in his fixation for a particular sound recording. More than just well-made thrillers, these films also question themselves and the rules of their genre, and perhaps more philosophically, how can you objectify a subjective experience so that you can share it with other people? ‘Memoria’ does not like this self-examination, but the question remains: where does the film want to go?
The film shows itself at its best in a dinner scene. Jessica’s sister, who lives with her family in Columbia, has returned from the hospital after a long mysterious illness. The sick bed is a hobbyhorse of Weerasethakul – floating somewhere between life and death. At dinner, Jessica, a dowdy Tilda Swinton, instead of one sound bomb, hears three in quick succession. Her curiosity dies down and turns into despair and fear. Not very cohesive, but you’re still glued to the screen. The Russian master Andrei Tarkovsky and the Taiwanese Tsai Ming-liang (‘I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone’, 2006, ‘Rizi’, 2020) would take off their hats. ‘Memoria’ mainly lives out its own logic. This sometimes surprises and offers the viewer intriguing moments, but just as much frustration, because almost everything and everyone seems unapproachable. Is Weerasethakul just acting mysterious here to be mysterious?
In the end ‘Memoria’ is increasingly weighed down by its hermetic attitude. After all, with the slow plot and scornful development of characters, Weerasethakul’s film hangs in the air. This leaves a wooded atmosphere, Swinton, this time without a putty layer of make-up effects, and a strange mix of spirituality and extrasensory sense of time. For some this will be enough, for many others it won’t. So if you’re not into the supernatural and slow cinema, it can become annoying for the seat, or overly serious and therefore unintentionally funny. Swinton is also close to self-parody. The fact that Weerasethakul uses Colombia so idiosyncratically as the main location makes up for quite a bit.