As his latest film whirls around the country on a kind of perpetual “tour” rather than one brief, simultaneous release, Apichatpong Weerasethakul is emphatic about the need to see Memoria communally in a theater, with its undistracting darkness and enveloping sound. In fact, it will never be shown on the small screen. These defined occurrences, like his films, involve patience, waiting and transitory, mysterious, life-changing phenomena. And of course, memory. Instant gratification and ever-flowing media streams are now taken for granted, and in Memoria nothing can be taken for granted.
Memoria is a film like no other, even none other of Weerasethakul’s. In addition to its alternative distribution strategy, the film is also a break from the director’s all-Thai productions. Until now, he had never even strayed from the area where he grew up, and none of his films ever starred a Westerner, much less a very famous one. Here, the shape-shifting and otherworldly Tilda Swinton melancholically slides into Memoria’s multiverse as Jessica, a Scottish botanist visiting her sister who’s ill in a hospital in Colombia. Her unpredictable trajectory is initiated by an unsettling, loud bang of unknown origin. The exploration of this sound leads her to doctors and audio engineers, and, seemingly tangentially, archaeologists uncovering ancient human remains at a construction site. Yet the science seems not quite capable of measuring the precise dimensions of what Jessica is accessing. A man she spoke to suddenly doesn’t exist. Another, thought dead, is alive. Along with these glitches, she encounters curses, apparitions, myths and the unknown, not with panic or disbelief but with a kind of obsessive and open-minded questioning—just as the Weerasethakul viewer should be positioned, as each uncanny turn opens up questions and doubts about the scene before. Drenched in a dense sonic atmosphere, this cinema-world revels in both the magical and the mundane. Political subtext and past traumas leak into the present and are inseparable from the metaphysical just as Jessica’s interior and exterior worlds become indistinguishable from one another. Amid the modern-day alienation and abstraction, she ultimately finds a profound connection, a startling release and the discovery that her dislocation, grief and even memories are not hers alone, if they are hers at all. – BG