Ever since his Palme d'Or victory with “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives” in 2010, Thai filmmaker Apichatapong Weerasethakul is somewhat of a star player in Cannes Film Festival line-up. With his foreign-language debut “Memoria”, he has achieved success, Jury Prize, at this year's edition of the festival. We were lucky to catch it at Karlovy Vary International Film Festival, where it played in the Horizons programme segment.
It is a bit corny to start a film review with William Faukner's quote about the nature of the past, how it is not dead and maybe not even past, but here it can serve as nice introduction. The same kind of thinking, but with some of the theoretical scientific proof could be told for the nature of the sound. It does not die out, it just infinitely tones down to fall out of the limits of our perception. If we use some deductive thinking on this subject, we can realize that every sound ever released is still there, but we just cannot hear it.
The thumping and bumping sound is the trigger for the action (conditionally speaking, since Weerasethakul is the master of the slow, action-less cinema) and the meditation in “Memoria”. The protagonist Jessica (Tilda Swinton) wakes up in the middle of the night after hearing it. There are no construction works in the area of Medellín, Colombia and no conflicts, so the source of the sound is nowhere to be found, especially because it seems only Jessica hears it. She is in Colombia to visit her sister Karen (Agnes Brekke) who has fallen ill to a mysterious sleeping disease, which serves as a connection with the rest of Weerasethakul's opus (especially his 2015 film “Cemetery of Splendour”), but she has enough of the connections through the University to set off on the adventure of finding the source of the sound that awakes her almost every night.
The first step is consulting with the young sound engineer named Hernan (Juan Pablo Urrego) so he could try to digitally recreate the sound of “a metal ball bumping against the wall wrapped in a sweater”. But since this research does not result in success, and Hernan proves to be a bit of an elusive presence, Jessica takes the trip to the jungle where she encounters an older man also named Hernan (Elkin Díaz) who might or might not be the same Hernan, but in another form. The older Hernan has never left his village, but he remembers even the things he is not physically connected with (a bit like “Uncle Boonmee”) and therefore can help Jessica solve the mystery of the sound. The past and the present intersect over the cities and the towns built on the graveyards…
Weerasethakul's filmmaking style might not be everybody's cup of tea, but his mastery cannot be disputed. Each of the long takes has its meaning, as well as the delayed cuts in the editing. They have the power to hypnotize the viewer and suck it in the filmmaker's unique world of philosophy and spirituality. The outlook of the film is more realistic and it seems less “magical”, at least until the sort of sci-fi finale, but the reason in it can be found in the fact that Weerasethakul is a bit cautious making his first feature in another geographical and historical context. He takes his sweet time, but to a greater reward.
His collaboration with Tilda Swinton seems to be made in heaven. The Scottish actress is a well-suited choice for this kind of quietly quirky characters and she adds her own twist to Jessica. The rest of the cast is similarly subdued, making the interactions between the characters convincing. The camerawork and the editing by his frequent collaborators Sayombhu Mukdeeprom and Lee Chatametikool, respectively, fit the bill perfectly, and so does the discreet soundtrack by César López.
On the appearance and the production structure levels, “Memoria” might seem as a bit of departure from Apichatapong Weerasethakul's usual environment, but on the topical and craft level, it is not. It can be considered more of an expansion than a recontextualization. It is a new page in his career, but the page is from the same book. The end result is pretty much spot-on.