Apichatpong Weerasethakul meticulously crafts a sensory journey soaked in introspection and metaphysical perplexity.
The idea of being attuned to the vibrations of the past, of other times and other lives, becomes literal in Memoria, Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s first feature film made outside of his native Thailand. In this case it’s Colombia – a country with its own embedded history of violence and lush jungle biome. Like the best of the director’s work, Memoria lulls you into its rhythms, gives you the sparse outlines of an intellectual framework, then hits you with the full weight of accumulated lyricism that must be pure cinema.
The film opens with Jessica (Tilda Swinton), a British woman in South America, possibly grieving and possibly starting an orchid farm, awoken by a sound. It’s like an explosion, not so different from the backfiring bus that sends a pedestrian diving to the ground in the middle of a crosswalk, but not quite.
And how odd: no one else can hear the sound, though in her encounters at the university where she’s researching bacteria and fungus, and at the hospital where she’s visiting a sick friend, there are traces of things below the surface. Soldiers guard the road into the mountains; a chance encounter with an archaeologist reveals a trove of bones still carrying the wounds of 6,000 years prior; car alarms ring, agitated by an obscure stimulus.
The sound that plagues Jessica is like a concrete orb dropped into a metal cylinder full of seawater, as she explains to Hernan (Juan Pablo Urrego), a sound engineer helping her digitally engineer a recreation of her… memory? Hallucination?
The scene, in both its sleepy, meditative pace and attempt to aurally evoke an absence, seems a reflection on Apichatpong’s own filmmaking. They’re doing sound design, trying to conjure the noise that haunts her – and it’s surely significant that Hernan uses a stock library of audio effects that includes sounds like a wooden bat hitting a duvet over a human torso.
Travelling out of the city, Jessica meets another Hernan (Elkin Diaz), a peasant with a perfect memory and a mystical ability to connect to the vibrations of the past. Apichatpong’s deliberate pacing, which is meditative, in the sense of consciously slowing your thoughts in order to better seek transcendence, reaches its resonant peak in extended long takes of a man lying on his back, barely breathing, not even dreaming (no thoughts, just vibes), and a deeply moving scene in which Diaz and Swinton clasp hands, and a rush of non-diegetic sound – nature, dialogue, memories – flow through the soundtrack and through her.
Apichatpong is on the record as saying that he doesn’t mind if you doze off at his films; I will raise my hand and say that I’m pretty sure that the part of this sequence where I heard my own parents’ voices was not part of the movie. But then again… was it?