In recent history, “provocateur” feels like an insult. After decades of mixed successes and competing voices, the ideological push-and-pull at the center of the art world has fostered a cynically self-protective audience, ears dulled to the emergency alarm subliminally raised by the artist. The survival of confrontational art against its politically safe escapist counterparts thereby necessitates a constant search for new methods, new ways of burrowing into the viewer’s mind, new ways of confronting without confronting. Memoria deftly sidesteps this concern, creating something so enveloping and alive that it becomes impossible to argue with.
It might raise eyebrows to call Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s filmmaking confrontational — the slow cinema master carries a sleepy reputation. In a review for 2004’s Tropical Malady, A.O. Scott remarks, “For every person you meet who fell into deep slumber before the end of the first hour, you find another who was utterly hypnotized by its languid rhythms and its haunting lyricism.” The world of Weerasethakul’s films pre-Memoria, most shot in rural Thailand, employs the environs to create a palette of lush nothingness, playing blissfully in the margins between dreaming and wakefulness. Tropical Malady steps gingerly into the forest, its moments of sudden, transcendent intimacy thundering against the openness like the echoing crack of a branch; Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives straightens its spine against the tradition of twilit whispers, mysteries we’ve inherited from the darkness. Somewhere in the runtime of almost any Weerasethakul film, you can expect a character to verbally impart a folkloric tale in fireside tones.
Yet hidden among the weeds of his craft is something that unsettles authority. For instance, Thailand’s Board of Censors demanded several scenes be removed from 2006’s Syndromes and a Century. In protest, Weerasethakul replaced these scenes with a black screen and silence, handing out cards at the premiere with YouTube links to the missing scenes. When considering the totality of content removed — scenes of, for example, monks playing with drones and doctors drinking on their work break — one can’t help but empathize with Weerasethakul’s seeming frustration and befuddlement about the whole controversy. Syndromes is a personal film, replete with memories of its creator growing up with parents in the medical profession. With its censorship, the deeply personal is dragged out into the arena of the political. What does it mean when the mundanities of your childhood life are considered unfit for public consumption?
Syndromes’ most confrontational and important scene is one that likely never made it to audiences at the Thai premiere. A group of doctors drinking liquor in a break room are joined by a young man staying at the hospital with symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning. After learning about his condition, one of the doctors places a hand on top of his head and describes a process of chakra healing. Throughout her description, the camera pans to her colleague, who stares into the camera. Her gaze seems to implicate the audience in this intuitive process of imagining — while the doctor describes a guided meditation involving the young man dipping his arms into a clear stream by a waterfall, there’s no harm if you, the viewer, invoke those same sense memories, imagining the experience of cool water washing over your skin. It’s an arresting moment until the tension is broken with a punchline: the young man deems the chakra healing ineffective and, as he leaves in frustration, the doctors resume drinking, with one remarking “I’ve tried this waterfall trick before.”
Memoria follows Jessica, a Scottish woman living in Medellín who must visit Bogotá when her sister ends up in the hospital. Early one morning, she hears a loud bang, “like a big ball of concrete that falls into a metal well.” The film follows her search for the sound’s meaning, which spirals in several directions. This is a simple way of describing the film, but to find what Memoria is truly about, one must concern oneself with the finer details.
Jessica, played by Tilda Swinton with a choreographed exactitude from which the character richly benefits, spends the first portion of the film on a nervous search trying to understand this new symptom, this loud “bang” that almost seems to come from within. She meets Hernan, young, doe-eyed and helpful, an audio engineer student of her sister’s husband, and becomes consumed with creating a recording that mimics her symptom. After the two collaborators have declared success, Hernan’s offerings continue: a song from his embarrassing punk band with Jessica’s “bang” folded into the soundscape, a proposed investment into her flower business from his savings account. Jessica grimaces, scoffs, uncomfortably shifts her way through these interactions, this man like a cat coughing feathers at her feet. What do these gifts portend?
In an early scene, Jessica’s sister wonders aloud whether the symptoms forcing her into the hospital are from a curse placed on her by a dying stray dog. It’s not until Jessica meets a stray dog of her own that this curse seems to be lifted. The concepts of a “curse” and a “blessing” are separated by an ocean of meaning, but to Weerasethakul, meaning, like space, bears an elasticity, a fundamental and unrestrainable possibility that connects the disconnected. Memoria spends its first half exploring the limitations of its namesake before blossoming into an artifact that contemplates the historical job of the storyteller, the person in search of perfect expression of the experiences of an imperfect organism. Throughout the fight to make her condition understood, Jessica battles with her sanity, trying to hold together the thin threads of meaning that connect her suffering to the world she inhabits.
Following the structural tradition of its writer-director’s best work, Memoria’s latter half, a loose reinterpretation of its first, unfolds like a magic trick. Memoria works like Syndromes in reverse, acquainting you with its most modern, immediate concerns before connecting to a shared history that stretches to the beginning of time. Jessica’s sound could be a curse, set upon her by either centuries-old souls excavated from nearby dig sites, by the tribes her sister is in contact with, or by a mistreated stray animal, but that line of thinking just as easily permits us to think of it as a blessing, a rapturous communication straight to Jessica’s mind from the Earth, from the dead, or perhaps from space. In contemplating this, the film reaches a climactic moment of pure cinematic transcendence, wherein Jessica ceases to be. It’s hard to describe the machinations leading up to this — the effect must simply be seen and, more importantly, heard to be fully understood — but, put as simply as possible, a confluence of simple filmmaking tricks work to interweave Jessica’s experience so thoroughly with a shared history of human trauma that it no longer serves the audience, in this section of the film, to think of her as a character. She is simply a microphone, an antenna, absorbing the splendor of human experience, writing a shared memory of existing simply by being.
Memoria most echoes Syndromes and a Century during a scene that succinctly foreshadows this climactic direction. Jessica, having lost track of Hernan, wanders into a room where a live jazz performance is taking place. She awkwardly squeezes herself into a group of onlookers. To her right, a woman stares at her for several seconds, then places her gaze fixedly into the camera, on the audience. Like in Syndromes, there’s an implicit confrontation happening here. Slow cinema, the style Weerasethakul tends toward, bears a reputation for being demanding of the viewer, but the gaze of this perfect stranger counters that preconception, waking the audience out of their stupor. Through Memoria, Weerasethakul takes a personal experience with Exploding Head Syndrome and grafts it to the political realities of a world crying out in pain, creatively charting his process from confusion, to understanding, to rapture in a manner that feels utterly universal. There is joy to be found in the shared process of experiencing, and there are blessings on their way to us through the expanse of time. The only demand to reaping these benefits is that you open your ears to listen.