I’m a huge fan of Thai writer-director Apichatpong Weerasethakul, who does little to dispel the widely held assumption that he makes movies only a critic can love. Weerasethakul’s films, like tropical disease and Syndromes and a century, certainly demand special attention: they are slow-moving and contemplative, steeped in Thai folklore and Buddhist belief, and they have little interest in conventional storytelling. They are also exciting and deeply moving; if you enter them with your eyes and ears wide open and take the time to adapt to their rhythms, it’s hard not to fall under their spell.
Weerasethakul’s new film is called Memory, and while it’s as wonderfully weird as anything he’s ever done, it’s also a bit of a departure. It’s his first feature film entirely shot outside of Thailand, and it’s also his first collaboration with a movie star, in this case the great Tilda Swinton. She is quietly fascinating as a Scottish-born botanist named Jessica, who lives in Medellín, Colombia. She recently came to Bogotá to visit her sister, who is recovering from a mysterious illness. The film begins when Jessica is awakened in the middle of the night by a loud bang.
In the days to come, Jessica will hear that bang over and over again, and soon she will realize that she is the only one who can hear it. Memory is a sound detective story, and it follows Jessica around the city as she tries to figure out what sound is and why she hears it. She visits a young sound engineer named Hernán, played by Juan Pablo Urrego, who tries to help recreate the noise using pre-recorded sound effects. Speaking in a mix of Spanish and English, Jessica describes the sound as “a big ball of concrete falling into a metal pit”.
Jessica’s investigation takes her in many strange directions. She visits an archaeologist who is studying recently discovered human remains that may have something to do with the sound she hears. She spends some more time with Hernán, but he suddenly disappears, leaving her – and us – wondering if she’s losing her grip on reality.
Eventually, Jessica travels to a nearby mountain village and meets an older fisherman, oddly also named Hernán, played by Elkin Díaz. Could they be two different versions of the same person? This wouldn’t be a surprise in the world of Weerasethakul, which is full of parallel realities and reincarnated spirits.
Hernán says he is both blessed and cursed by his ability to remember everything that happened to him, which gives a clue to the meaning of Memorythe title. It all culminates in a climax that left my jaw on the ground, as we finally find out what caused that sound – although, as always with Weerasethakul, the reveal brings more questions than answers.
But at the same time Memory With its share of confusing moments, Swinton’s restrained presence anchors each scene. There’s something particularly poignant about Jessica’s time with the elder Hernán, in which we see two people who have never met forge an inexplicable but deep connection. You can’t take your eyes off Swinton, even when she’s just sitting quietly listening to someone talk. You are reminded, at times like these, that the simple act of listening to someone can be an act of radical empathy.
There were a lot of mixed reactions last year when film distributor Neon announced that Memory would only be shown on the big screen, as part of an endless road-tour style outing. As of now, there are no plans for the film to be available on DVD or any streaming platforms. There is something refreshing about this approach, which deals Memory not as a mere piece of disposable, streamable content, but as a work of art whose crystal-clear images and intricate sound design demand to be experienced in the best possible way. I hope you will experience Memorybecause it’s one of the most moving films you’ll see – or hear – in a theater this year.