Digby Houghton | February 19, 2022
Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weeasethakul has been known to explore the supernatural throughout his career, raising the bar a step further in his latest movie Memoria, which explored trauma and its effect on humans’ ability to function day to day. ACMI (the Australian Centre for the Moving Image), Melbourne’s premier film institution dedicated to preserving and screening Australian and art-house cinema, hosted screenings for the film as part of the launch of Fireflies Press’ novel rendition of the coveted filmmaker’s latest movie. It follows Jessica (Tilda Swinton), a middle-aged orchid farmer who arrives in Bogotá to visit her sick sister Karen (Agnes Brekke). Jessica suffers from a disorder in which an explosive noise rings in her head at disjointed periods throughout each day. Jessica meets local sound technician and audio engineer Hernán Bedoya (Juan Pablo Urrego), who attempts to assist her in pinpointing and replicating the exact sound emanating from her head. Whilst the plot may seem whimsical, Apichatpong intricately leaves his distinct imprint stylistically and thematically, telling a touching story in a delicate manner. His efforts to craft such a spectacularly insightful film is encompassed by the director himself going so far as to leaving his home country of Thailand to film in Columbia, which he had grown fond of since travelling there years before.
The film opens in a shroud of darkness as the shot remains still on a person in bed. After a brief pause, the camera pans following a non-descript woman as she walks out of bed. The opening shots establish what Apichatpong is prolifically known for—his slow and restrained style, as the cuts are long between one another allowing the audience to grapple with the characters in the frame. Soon after, the film cuts to the exterior location of a car park where the cars’ alarms go off non-simultaneously. Returning to the woman’s home as shown prior, it’s clear now that the unknown person was Jessica, who now wears a distraught look on her face. The disjointed, abrupt cuts between settings will soon hold a new meaning as it becomes apparent that Jessica suffers from the uncontrollable explosions within her mind. Were the cars a symptom of this disorder? The intentional incorporation of various sounds proves paramount to the film’s meaning and its concern with interiors and exteriors is complemented well through the deliberate use of its diegetic and non-diegetic sound.
We follow Jessica as she meanders around the Colombian capital while there to visit her sick sister before she meets Hernán, the sound engineer. The film’s attempt to externalise the intricacies of what lies inside the characters’ brains becomes apparent as we watch Hernán try to map the recurring noise in Jessica’s mind. Through a long shot behind the computer screen Hernán uses to edit, we witness the pair metaphorically drill down into the timbre, pitch and depth of the mysterious sound before cutting to an over-the-shoulder shot of the computer screen. Hernán has successfully visualised the noise as a coloured graph, replete with light and dark greens as well as reds. As the light greens are cut, the noise suddenly morphs into something deeper and richer, causing Jessica to nod, suggesting Hernán has managed to recreate the noise inside her head.
Hernán later meets Jessica beneath a tree in a park, the sounds of wisping trees and chirping birds, as she listens to the sound while nodding. Such complex moments are what makes Memoria impactful because Apichatpong’s concept of externalising what is impossible to describe is heightened through the use of diegetic and non-diegetic sound.
This year, marred once again by the pandemic, ACMI had hosted screenings of Apichatpong’s cinema. In the middle of the year the Melbourne Cinematheque had screened a three-week season of his movies, including a session devoted to his shorts. This experience further enriched Memoria, particularly as the themes of supernaturality and the paranormal usually prevalent in his Thai-based movies bled into this Columbia based production. This was most evident in Memoria’s incorporation of water. The element of water was crucial in providing balance and healing as a central motif in Memoria, due to Jessica’s internal and external destabilisation, which can also be seen in a number of Apichatpong’s other films.
Other Apichatpong films bear similar themes surrounding water such as, Blissfully Yours, a 2002 film by Apichatpong about illegal migrants in North Thailand, who rendezvous on the Thai-Burmese border for a picnic near a river. Jessica’s journey in Memoria out of Bogotá for anthropological research leads her to a similar river bank where she finds a fisherman, also named Hernán, whose sheltered existence bars him from seeking new experiences. At first, his character may come across as blunt and demeaning, but Jessica finds simplicity within the man’s lifestyle. In a close-up, we watch as he routinely descales his catch of the day using a fish scaler, while indistinctly chatting with her about his humble lifestyle. The two characters gradually learn about their similarities and grow closer as a result, aptly depicting the film’s emphasis on the power of shared lived experiences.
Overall, Memoria is a stellar film that sheds light on the complex nature of internalised pain and trauma, and how different people learn to live about it.
The film’s delicate subject matter is beautifully brought to life through Apichatpong’s meticulous framing and controlled style, allowing the audience to resonate with the emotions of the actors. Swinton brings the fractured personality of Jessica to the big screen, ultimately allowing the weight of her character’s struggles to be deeply felt throughout the movie’s duration. Whilst the film is set to play sporadically like a roadshow movie at ACMI and limited cinemas, it’s surely not to be missed.