This review of Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Memory is from the screening of the film at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival. Stay tuned for more information when the film arrives in the United States.
After hearing a thud, Jessica (Tilda Swinton) suddenly wakes up to a milky night. The sound is dull, but high-pitched, and it lacks a clear sense of origin. Jessica soon discovers that hardly anyone else can hear the repetitive, menacing clok except the pigeons and a frightened passer-by in the street. Memory, a 136-minute chilling meditation by Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul (Tropical disease, Uncle Boonmee who can remember his past lives), concerns Jessica’s search for the truth behind this disturbing sound. And it’s kind of a ghost story, filled with supernatural terror and a psychological exploration of connected human consciousness.
Jessica is an expatriate Englishwoman living in Medellín, Colombia, where she operates a flower sales business. She visits her sister Karen (Agnes Brekke), who is in a hospital in Bogata and suffers from a mysterious respiratory illness. Initially, Memory seems to be about Karen’s short-term memory issues: she doesn’t remember Jessica’s visits to the hospital. But she remembers a menacing, starving stray dog on the street, whom she hoped to save, but ultimately forgot to help. Now she thinks she’s cursed. Corn Memory does not concern individual memory, but collective oblivion.
Memory works at a strange level: loud noises happen without warning, sometimes one at a time, other times in a row. Jessica eventually goes to a flirtatious young sound engineer, Hernán (Juan Pablo Urrego), to reproduce the sound. It’s deep, low, and metallic, as if it is springing from the center of the earth, like molten rock landing on the ground. Swinton’s angular frame becomes rigid whenever she hears noises. His physical tension is best expressed when Hernan tries to recreate the sonic imprint of the noise: the closer he gets to mimic it, the more his shoulders straighten, as if the click is kissing his spine.
Weerasethakul’s film is a treat of a soundscape, and not just because of the thud. The sound of the wind between the leaves seems to have its own language. A subplot to the tale features construction workers discovering an ancient skeleton of a girl with a hole drilled in her skull to free demons. Likewise, Jessica is diagnosed with “exploding head syndrome”. Weerasethakul is not too concerned with the mechanics of either phenomenon. He is more interested in demonstrating how Colombia has moved away from its supernatural indigenous roots to become a modern country, and how a white woman traversing this foreign land can be consumed by the ghosts of a lost culture echoing.
The people she meets are just as abnormal as the noise Jessica hears. She and Hernán form a connection, but he mysteriously disappears. Jessica later ventures into a hospital for treatment, and a nurse diagnoses her with hallucinations and suggests a religion rather than Xanax. Finally, she meets another Hernán, this one, an older fisherman who claims to remember everything, even memories from before he was born. They share common memories of an assault and then of the slaughter of a family decades ago. This is one of the few times this film speaks with clarity, to describe how generational and national trauma sticks to the back of the head.
Swinton adapts to these strange obstacles with aplomb. Although she has a huge range, she seems best placed in movies like Snowdrops and We need to talk about Kevin, who take advantage of his supernatural presence. Memory does the same, leaving Swinton to relate naturally to the dark sci-fi currents that run through the film.
by Weerasethakul Memory is sometimes too opaque, however, and editor-in-chief Lee Chatametikool’s deliberate pace becomes a confusing obstacle instead of providing clarity. To some extent, that is the point. The shots are long and measured – it feels like there are only a few dozen cuts in the whole movie. This rhythm allows viewers to search for meaning on the screen, much like Jessica searches for the origin of the noise. It’s a gracious interpretation. The harshest point of view: This film is too metaphorical to fully reach its emotional target.
Instead, the film speaks with a primordial timbre. A feeling lost in time, but which still resides in our subconscious, in the corner of the dark room, in the silence of the night that our ancestors knew how to dread. This mediation resonates, even when the surface narrative seems cloudy. by Weerasethakul Memory don’t give too many answers. It advances at an interminable pace. But they are mostly strengths rather than flaws, methods that compel audiences to engage with the thoughts and collective memory buried deep within their psyche. In this direction, Memory is a sensory explosion, and its dense and immersive glow is not easily removable.
Memory does not yet have a US release date, but NEON has acquired the distribution rights and describes it as “Coming soon.”