Memoria by Apichatpong Weerasethakul

I had previously seen at the New York Film Festival one of this filmmaker’s earlier films called Tropical Malady which was a mysterious but absolutely beautiful film about a couple of guys who fall in love. They are completely different: one is a military man, the other works in a restaurant, I think. And the first half of the film charts their romance. But the second half, the film becomes the embodiment of a Thai myth, as one of the men finds himself lost in the jungle and being stalked but an unseen entity, which I think turns out to be a jungle tiger. (That is from a 2004 movie so my summary could be entirely wrong.)

This movie is set in Bogota, Medelllin and then a remote part of the Colombian jungle. Like the earlier movie, it seems to be comprised of two major sections: a relatively normal first section that takes place in the cities and then a second section which takes place in the jungle. Tilda Swinton’s character Jessica is an ex-pat from Scotland who wants to grow and export to her former country various orchids that are found in Colombia. We learn later that she’s an insomniac, and the movie opens in that sort of strange moment when the sun hasn’t quite risen but light is starting to fill the morning sky. We hear a huge boom-kind of sound — something like an explosion but also maybe an earthquake. She rises slowly, and not yet fully awake, but not having restfully slept, Jessica starts her day. When she’s speaking a bit later to her landlord, she asks how long the construction next door is going to take place, but her landlord says there is no construction. That’s the first moment when she is starting to become aware that only she can hear this noise.

She goes to a sound engineer and together they try to recreate the sound as she remembers it. This engineer’s name is Hernan and in the credits he is given the name “Young Hernan Bedoya,” because after she returns to seek him out again, she learns from the people there that no one by that name works there. So now she’s really starting to doubt her sanity, but the interesting thing about this is that she doesn’t really feel too frightened about the possibility that she’s losing her mind. Or that reality is starting to slip from her. She continues to hear this boom — three times in a row while she’s having lunch with her sister and brother in law.

Eventually she ends up in the jungle and by changing her position, like lowering her head to the ground, she can hear this sound whenever she wants. And then someone sees her and asks her if she’s alright. This is the “Older Hernan Bedoya,” and he reveals that he remembers everything and can’t sleep. That’s all I’ll say about the plot because the plot is almost incidental. She does, incidentally, or at least we, learn what the sound is.

The movie really seems to be about detritus or what we leave behind. There is a scene where some scholars are carefully reconstructing bones that have been discovered in a giant tunnel they are boring for traffic. (This I understand is based on some controversial and environmentally harmful tunnel that was actually built.) But it’s also about sounds — the sounds of the noisy city — the sounds of the jungle — and of course the sound that only Jessica can hear. One of the skulls is significant because it has a hole drilled out of it and the professor explains that it was probably done to let the demons out of the young girl’s head 6,000 years ago. This practice is called trepanation, but it suggests that Jessica also has something in her head that is causing her to hear things. (There are people who still practice this skull drilling behavior.) And like so many things, it mirrors the drilling of the tunnel itself.

But she never panics about her descent into madness but as viewers, we aren’t really sure that she actually is, in fact, losing her mind. By the end I think we come to view it as a real thing, just as the ancient people who drilled a hole in that skull believed whatever they were letting out was real. Someone told me there is a Buddhist thought that all phenomena (which I think is basically what we see every day) begin as vibrations and then manifest in our “real” world as images and sounds and touch — everything that our brain is capable of processing. This seems to have that feel, for even after the credits start rolling, sounds keep coming our way.

He’s an interesting director. He’s never going to allow this film to be streamed (or as far as I know digitized), and he’s only allowing it to play in one movie theatre at a time.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.