Apichatpong Weerasethakul (pronounced a-PEE-sha-PONG wee-RAH-say-THAW-cool, or you can refer to him by his nickname, “Joe”) is the kind of filmmaker one has to be… “in the right mood for.” His movies are often characterized by dreamlike presentations of unconventionally-structured narratives, supernatural touches, languid pacing, laconic dialogue, and frank sexuality, peppered with absurdist humor that is mesmerizing to some and narcoleptic to others. Having not seen his entire filmography, I run hot and cold on what I have experienced so far, enraptured by the ingeniously subtle discrepancies of two versions of the exact same story with very different outcomes in Syndromes and a Century on one end of the spectrum while finding myself at a loss to see what Tim Burton’s Cannes Film Festival Main Competition jury found so special about Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives on the other end. So, I was not entirely sure how he’d pull off Memoria,his first-ever feature film set outside of his native Thailand, starring none other than Tilda Swinton as his first English-speaking performer in a lead role (and in hindsight, there really was no other non-Thai actor better suited for his style of filmmaking).
But I’ll be damned – he pretty much knocks it out of the park with what may be his most (relatively) “accessible” effort yet; using a simple setup as a springboard to link together virtually every intellectual and emotional through-line of his oeuvre so far, to profound effect. It’s contemplative, quietly haunting, and its unusual visuals and sounds linger with you long after it’s over. The absolute worst thing about it has nothing to do with anything in the film itself, but it’s too much of a hindrance to everything I value about cinema as a unifying and accessible art form to brush it aside… but we’ll get to that in a minute.
For now, we join Swinton’s Jessica, a botanist visiting Bogotá and finding herself plagued by a strange, intermittent, thudding noise in the distance that doesn’t sound like anything producible by nature or the nearby city. More mysteriously, no one else at first seems to notice this bizarre recurring sound that starts to follow her everywhere she goes. She commits herself to investigating the source of this omnipresent sound; to find out what it even is in the hope that if she knows the source and can even recreate it, it may go away. Or at least not sound so threatening to her.
This premise probably sounds very uncharacteristically plot-driven from what Joe usually works with, but those expecting a calculated, ticking clock suspense narrative will likely be confounded by Jessica’s search taking on more of a lyrical tone poem, as her search for the source of the sound descends into a more internal conflict between herself and her own memories, senses, and perception of nature. Just when you think you’re about to “solve” Memoria by declaring the sound a totally imaginary invention of an unraveling mind, you then see birds clearly startled by it as well. Ah ha, it’s the tunnel excavation project happening nearby in a subplot introduced earlier in the movie! But no… things happen later that don’t quite line up with that “solution,” either.
But Jessica’s perceptions are not totally reliable, either. In a key scene, she meets with a sound engineer named Hernán (side note, it is deeply unfortunate that this movie has no chance at scoring a Best Sound nomination next month) in his studio in an attempt to recreate the mysterious sound by manipulating the stock audio clips in his studio. Their interaction is borderline comical, as Jessica finds herself struggling to accurately describe what she keeps hearing: “No, it’s… ‘earthier,” “Can it make that sound more… um, round?” But then I realized… how would I describe this sound? “Earthy” sounds too simplistic and clunky, but it does come off kind of “earthy” when I hear it. Without spoiling too much, when Jessica meets up with Hernán again… it’s not in the same context and he may not even be the same Hernán as the one she talked to earlier. If these kinds of surrealist gambits sound frustrating to you, Memoria probably won’t be your cup of tea. I found them engrossing, even thrilling, all the way up to the film’s fittingly confounding and open-ended finale.
So after all that praise, I should be awarding this movie a perfect four stars, right? Ingenious sound design, thoughtfully-considered visual compositions, enticing and open-ended philosophical questions underlining it… what could possibly mar this review?
Unfortunately, U.S. distributor NEON has decided that a film like this deserves to be seen by only a select few within a very limited and poorly-advertised timeframe. It made its stateside premiere at New York’s IFC Center last Christmas, and from there the plan is for the film to just hop from one screen in one theater for a single weeklong engagement at a time here, apparently in indefinite perpetuity. Oh, and there are no plans for it to ever be commercially available via streaming or physical home media. Ever. Also, if anyone has a long-range schedule for when and where Memoria will play for the rest of the year, please feel free to drop it in the comments below, because I have had no luck finding one myself.
NEON argues that the experience of Memoria is a uniquely theatrical one, and I don’t disagree with that. They also claim that this one-theater-for-one-week-at-a-time-with-no-advance-notice-eff-you rollout will make Memoria a more special movie, turning it into, as they claim, “a kind of never-ending, moving-image art exhibit.” And I completely disagree with this. At a time when indie and international cinema is already hard enough to access for people outside of New York City and Los Angeles, when it’s a chore just to get general moviegoers to give films like Prayers for the Stolen and What Do We See When We Look at the Sky? a chance from the comfort of their own homes, when The Discourse surrounding new releases moves faster than was even conceivable just a decade ago, a release strategy that all but announces “Only the most dedicated cinephiles need apply” is the most elitist form of gatekeeping at a time when there is no upside to that attitude.
If the last two years have taught us anything, it’s that cinema, in all forms, from all corners of the world, can be a unifying experience, and current technology has facilitated that more than ever. From documentaries about niche subcultures at the start of the lockdowns to a violent Korean dark comedy about the evils of capitalism becoming a smash hit just a few months ago, people will be adventurous in what they watch and will support arthouse darlings like Joe if their studios meet them halfway and not act like his newest film is something that a select few metropolitan yuppies and film students have to “prove” their interest in before being able to watch the thing.
So yes, if you find yourself in a limited window of opportunity to see Memoria, go for it. It’s a great and weird and thought-provoking and thematically-dense film, and doesn’t deserve artificial barriers to its accessibility.