Memoria – Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s weird and wonderful journey


James Luxford

James City A.M.’s film editor and a regular on both TV and radio discussing the latest movie releases

It’s always exciting when a celebrated director tries something new. Apichatpong Weerasethakul is the director of Palm d’Or winner Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, as well as the adored drama Cemetery of Splendour. Memoria marks his first foray outside of his native country, but his filmmaking language appears intact.

Tilda Swinton stars as Jessica, a British expatriate living in Medellin. While in Bogotá visiting her ailing sister, Jessica is awoken by a strange, loud noise that only she seems to hear. The sound haunts her intermittently as she travels across Colombia, meeting people and having experiences that go beyond her own perception. Is it a sign of her crumbling sanity, reality shifting, or something entirely different?

Weerasethakul, also referred to simply as Joe, isn’t in the business of providing answers. Rather, Memoria is an invitation to experience cinema, and life, through his often-disorientating lens. Impatient audience members will have their resolve tested by the narrative confusion, and long, thoughtful takes. Like a mindfulness exercise committed to film, if you can tune in to the film’s rhythms, you’ll find an experience quite unlike any other. 

Emotions are experienced in isolation – the anxiety of Jessica as she hears the noise over and over during a dinner with her sister, or the frustration as she tries to explain the boom to a sound engineer (Juan Pablo Urrego), who is later revealed to have never existed. It’s a film that’s designed to be felt rather than pieced together, and as such may prove divisive to those who aren’t familiar with Weerasethakul’s past. 

One person who clearly does get it is Swinton, who drops perfectly into the mystery. It’s a powerful performance made of tiny reactions that leave a mark. The camera is fascinated by her as she is moved by music, terrified by the recurring noise, and ethereal in a long scene with a fish scaler she encounters. There’s even a moment of comedy, as a doctor advises religion instead of pills for Jessica’s malady, taking inspiration from Salvador Dali (to which Jessica meekly replies “don’t you think he was on something?”). 

Hard to define but impossible to forget, Memoria is premiere arthouse cinema that stretches what is possible with the medium. A prime example of how great art doesn’t always wish to be understood. 

Memoria is in cinemas from 14th January. 

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