Programme Notes: Memoria

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Spoiler warning: these notes are best read after viewing the film. They contain discussion of plot and character details.

In the Colombian capital city of Bogotá, something goes bump in the night. Or, perhaps bump isn’t the right word. It’s a sound between a bang and a thump, a sudden, explosive, frightening noise that wakes up Jessica (played by Tilda Swinton). She describes it as ‘a ball of concrete hitting a metal wall surrounded by seawater’ to a sound engineer named Hernán (Juan Pablo Urrego). Something from deep within the earth.

As Jessica moves around the city, the sound follows her. Eerily, no one else seems to hear it, even when it booms during a dinner with her sister (Agnes Brekke) and brother-in-law (Daniel Giménez Cacho). Jessica is startled by the earthy rumble she calls ‘her sound.’ Hernán and Jessica work together to recreate it with a sound board, but he’s only able to create an interpretation of the noise. Amid occasional booms, Jessica continues her daily routine, researching orchid farming, reading books about fungi and visiting 6,000-year-old skeletal remains that have been recently unearthed by a local tunnelling project. She returns to the music studio to visit Hernán but the employees tell her that no one with that name works there.

Thai filmmaker and artist, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, creates enigmatic slow cinema. Memoria is his first film set outside Thailand, and it continues his career of speculative, sensory filmmaking that taps into themes of cultural mythology, ghosts and the gap between urban and rural spaces. Shot by cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom, Memoria is composed of long, often stationary, takes, with the camera acting as a distant observer.

But just as we are lulled into the film’s dreamlike rhythms, Weerasethakul jolts us awake again as Jessica is pulled out of the city to a rural town. Observing that she might be going mad, she visits a doctor who tells her: ‘In this town there are many people with hallucinations.’ Rather than a medical condition, like exploding-head syndrome (which Weerasethakul himself experienced during Memoria’s shoot), Jessica begins to understand that her aural ‘hallucination’ comes from her connection, or rather disconnection, to the world around her. An outsider to Colombia, Jessica drifts from scene to scene pulled along by an invisible thread and her quest to discover the origins of her sound. Weerasethakul avoids easy interpretations of that earthy thump: perhaps it’s a reverberation of indigenous Colombian history; perhaps it’s the past knocking on the present’s door as bones are dug up around the city; perhaps it’s the synthetisation of artificial sound waves created in a music studio.

In the countryside, she meets another Hernán (Elkin Diaz). This one is older with a perfect memory and a deep connection to the land he exists within. Mountains and forests have consistently been sites of boundary-defying magic for Weerasethakul. In his Palme d’Or-winning film, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010), Southeast Asian jungles are spaces where the living and the dead can exist together, as the film’s protagonist is visited by spirits. There’s no shock or horror at these encounters, simply calm conversations and a peaceful coexistence. In Memoria’s Colombian jungles, Jessica’s noisy ghost is less figurative. With the older Hernán, she manages to find deliberate, deep stillness. Time slips past as Hernán lies in the long grass, barely breathing but in meditation with the earth. Birds, monkeys and water can be heard passing by as a bond between man and land is reforged.

And through this human/earth connection, a link between Jessica and Hernán is also established. In his house, he tells her that she is the antenna and he is the hard drive after she is able to recall his childhood memories. When the two grasp hands he tells her that her rumbling sound is, in fact, his, but comes from long before either of them. A rush of sound enters the room: nature sounds, water falling, voices, crashes. It’s a sequence of sound that took Memoria’s sound designer Akitchharlerm Kalayanamitr 20 drafts and two months to create. These echoes across time arise from the lush green of the forest, a wild place layered with memories.

Memoria’s American distributor, Neon, have announced that the film will remain in cinemas ‘forever’, on an endless tour across the nation, one city stop at a time. Memoria is a film about subjective experience: Jessica’s and the viewer’s. It’s a film about opening the floodgates between the past and the present, the human and the non-human, the real and the imagined. It’s also a film that refutes labels, slipping past cool analysis to instead surrender to the act (and art) of simply experiencing the world. It’s a recognition of the magic that can be found in connection – a magic that is always out there waiting for us, as long as we have the time to stop and let it in.

Katie Goh
Freelance journalist (VICE, Little White Lies, The Guardian)
13 January 2022

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