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Film

'Memoria' Review: A meditative exploration of history and memory

'Memoria' - Apichatpong Weerasethakul
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Thai auteur Apichatpong Weerasethakul is one of the most respected figures in the landscape of global cinema, known for his unique cinematic vision which lures audiences into that irresistible domain of dreams. He made headlines in 2021 when he announced that his new project Memoria would star Tilda Swinton and would be based in Colombia – the land of magical realism. As it turns out, Weerasethakul has indeed managed to make worthy addition to his illustrious filmography.

Right from the very start, the audience is jolted into consciousness by a loud but strange sound which has that elusive je ne sais quoi about it. More than us, it bothers Tilda Swinton’s character – Jessica – who tries really hard to figure out its mysterious origins. An orchid farmer by profession, she travels to Bogotá to visit her ill sister but ends up embarking on a journey that leads her to the neural pathways that form the human psyche.

Weerasethakul has always maintained that filmmakers are like architects who are dedicated to the sole objective of constructing a space within which artistic investigations can be conducted. Just like in some of his other masterpieces like Tropical Malady and Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, he manages to achieve just that by bringing together various philosophical strands and fashioning the odyssey of one woman with them.

Through his characteristic slow pacing and the luscious cinematography of Sayombhu Mukdeeprom, Weerasethakul follows Jessica as she tries to find a reflection of that concrete-metal-aquatic sound that perpetually haunts her. Memoria paints a strangely alluring picture of a world that is slightly askew, a world where car alarms are set off all at once while that mysterious thud keeps popping up.

“I try to mimic the pattern of memory and of thinking and the randomness of life,” Weerasethakul once said. “It’s like a journey. That is the main thing about the beauty of life; that you don’t cram. And not only beauty, but also the fact that there is never a concrete thing in life.” Memoria is another experiment which has been designed to explore the bowels of human memory as well the collective amnesia of anthropology.

This amnesia is encountered by Jessica on multiple occasions, when the people around her contradict themselves and the man who was helping her find that sound disappears all of a sudden, almost like he never existed. It is an allegorical representation of Weerasethakul’s primary concerns about the constant erasure of personal and collective histories, a phenomenon that is contextualised as a parallel narrative thread alongside Jessica’s friendship with an anthropologist who excavates perforated skulls.

While the film never mentions the pandemic because such references are too crude, you can tell that Jessica is undergoing a similar kind of insomniac descent into insanity. She asks her doctor for Xanax but is only comforted when she comes across a man named Hernan who can listen to the stories embedded in rocks. With long shots, each frame of Weerasethakul’s film is a painting that is alive.

Like his other works, it is hard to draw strict lines between dreams and reality in Memoria but that ambiguity contributes to the oneiric experience. By invoking surrealism through sound, the Thai master has created a mysterious modern parable with spaceships and ancient revelations: “What is this thing, that springs from the living? The scent of a virus. The perfume of decay.”

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