Paying attention to the films of Apichatpong Weerasethakul always reveals something deeply immodest at their cores, despite their placable surfaces, beautiful visual arrangements and soundscapes. Tropical Malady (2004), for instance, begins as a coy, tentative romance, before a destabilising reset, which recasts the young men at its centre as figures in an allegorical tale of what love is and is not. The soldiers afflicted with sleeping sickness in Cemetery of Splendour (2015) become the focus of a wide-ranging political tension, a potential censure of both Thailand’s monarchy and the junta who took power the year before the film’s release. This isn’t to neglect Apichatpong’s careful dramatising of the politics of sexuality and migration in Blissfully Yours (2002), or the way history is examined in both Syndromes and a Century (2006) and Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall his Past Lives (2011). What Apichatpong manages to combine, through what and how he hears and sees, is a coursing generosity of purpose and a disguised grandeur of meaning.
Before venturing to Memoria, his first feature set outside Thailand, I think it’s pertinent to heed a warning regarding writing about Apichatpong. James Quandt characterises much writing about his films as falling prey to the following problems:
an automatic default to locutions of bafflement, of succumbing and surrender, the invocation of cosmic enigma and poetic unreason, of the indeterminate, ineffable, and oneiric…various forms of dreamy exaltation, hallucination, delirium, raptness, enchantment, mesmerism, intoxication, seemingly to stanch or forestall the hard work of interpretation. Time and again, critics insist that Apichatpong’s films are anything but—rather, they’re poems, paintings, dreams, mirages—with little structure or narrative, a floating, ethereal inundation of exotic signs, unmoored in decipherable meaning. The corollary is that to parse is to asperse: if the “mysterious object,” to use the most frequently employed trope for Apichatpong’s work, must retain its inviolability, exegesis will kill the enigma, and the object along with it.James Quandt: “Resistant to Bliss: Describing Apichatpong,” in Apichatpong Weerasethakul (Ed. Quandt, Ӧsterrichisches Filmmuseum, 2009), 14.
(One to add: ‘beguiling.’) Quandt’s admonishment isn’t a simple list to check off against critics who use these terms (he is, in part, writing about his earlier attempts to write about Apichatpong), it’s more fundamental than being careful about adjectives. If a critic gives way to these ‘locutions of bafflement,’ what it amounts to is a refusal to watch and listen to the film for what it is.
What makes Apichatpong one of the fixtures of contemporary cinema, one of those once-in-history artists, one of those filmmakers whose entire project is worth loving, is not his ability to frustrate critical responses, but his ability to encourage and accommodate multiple interpretations; the meanings of his films are not assertions, present either to be comprehended or not—they are like flowers, they grow with time and exposure to light.
Speaking of flowers: what’s important about orchids in Memoria? Jessica (Tilda Swinton) is an orchid farmer based in Medellín, Colombia, but who’s visiting Karen (Agnes Brekke), her sister, in Bogotá, hospitalised by an unexplained illness. In an early scene, in which Jessica talks with Juan (Daniel Giménez Cacho), her brother-in-law, it emerges that some of her orchids have succumbed to disease; she’s later seen pouring over a book on the plant in a spacious, high-ceilinged library, each picture showing black spores colonising the flower’s pink petals. This is in contrast to the appearance of orchids in Syndromes and a Century, in which Toey (Nantarat Sawaddikul) reminisces about falling into an almost romance with Noom (Sophon Pukanok), an orchid grower. Noom claims the flowers as priceless, before expatiating on their magical properties, such as their ability to glow in the dark. Images in Apichatpong’s films have a habit of transmogrifying one to the next, reappearing in new contexts—so it is with the orchid, with its wild, unkempt roots; perhaps Jessica’s inability to make her flowers take to Colombian soil is a reminder of her (and Apichatpong’s) otherness in her adopted land.
But Jessica too is afflicted—she’s even named after the somnambulant character in Jacques Tourneur’s I Walked with a Zombie (1943). Like the soporific soldiers in Cemetery of Splendour, her ailment (at first) relates to sleep, then infects her waking hours. In the first shot, Jessica is awoken by a sharp thudding sound; she lies up in her bed, rises, and walks in a daze to the door. To investigate the sound, Juan facilitates a meeting with Hernán (Juan Pablo Urrego), a sound engineer. Jessica tries to evoke the sound in English and Spanish, but her vocabulary plays up the slipperiness of language itself. Her descriptions (“concrete ball,” “metallic,” “round”) can’t do the sound justice; but the loveliest element in the scene is the self-conscious humour of their interaction: Juan is a welcoming presence, but the pair have to share a laugh over the in-built imprecision of Jessica’s attempts to recreate the noise inside her skull (just imagine the essay Stanley Cavell would have written about this!). But he gets close enough, using his library of sound effects, which he edits according to her specifications, to shock her into silent recognition. The sound follows her: she hears it in a restaurant with Karen and Juan, and a town square; but it also appears to have correlates, repeated cues that haunt Jessica’s days—a symphony of car alarms is connected to her presence (or is it?) on more than one occasion; lights in rooms begin to shut off unexpectedly, once in the library, another time while traipsing around a gallery of work by Colombian artist Ever Astudillo. Her sense of her life begins to dissolve: when she looks for Hernán again, she’s told no one called Hernán works there; she gets details about Karen’s stories mixed-up.
An anchor in the seas of her confusion is Agnes (Jeanne Balibar), an anthropologist she meets while waiting to visit Karen. Detailing her work, she shows Jessica the bones of a young girl she estimates to be 6,000 years old; the girl’s skull has been drilled into, Agnes suggests, as an apotropaic rite, to relieve her of evil spirits. The remains were exhumed from a tunnel under construction, where Agnes and her team are to return for further excavation. La línea, as the tunnel is known, cuts through the Colombian section of Andes, and has been in and out of development since 2004. Per Giovanni Marchini Camia’s set diaries, the tunnel was ‘conceived by the government in the early 20th century’ and it ‘holds an almost mythical status in the national imaginary.’ The link between La línea and the girl’s skull is ingenious: both earth and flesh trepanned, bored through. Jessica will accompany Agnes on her return to the tunnel, but not before Apichatpong composes one of those images that belongs as much to dreams as to waking life. Jessica walks into an impossible space: a dark room with dark stone floors, in the centre of which is a terrarium-like installation, a glass immurement sheltering a patch of grass with an opening in the roof, through which sunlight slants. It’s the sort of shot that makes me want to forget Quandt’s warning about surrendering sense, but then it’s placement within the film becomes clear, and it’s distinguished that bit more. This is the last shot of Jessica in Bogotá, before she takes her detour to Pijao. From the city to the country the film jumps, the transport signalled in this shot, which encases the natural world in sleek stone and glass confines. It’s a quintessential Apichatpong image, one that refuses easy binaries, and holds on closely to more than one visual idea at once.
Pijao, not 200 miles to the west of Bogotá, is an especially apt place for the film to conclude. Apichatpong is held as one of the supernal practitioners of slow cinema (defined by a propensity to employ long takes with mostly static cameras, an interest in the workings of cinematic duration), a movement that emerges in tandem with other “slow” movements: slow food, slow music, slow sex, and slow cities. The last of these, Cittaslow, originates from Italy, and has created a global network of cities connected under the banner. Pijao is South America’s only Cittaslow. It also fits into Apichatpong’s habit of bifurcating his films’ structures: Blissfully Yours, Tropical Malady, and Syndromes and a Century all—to varying degrees of neatness—split into two sections, one in relative urbanity, the other in (or near) the jungle. The later part of Memoria shares something else with both Blissfully Yours and Syndromes and a Century: a drily funny consultation scene set in a doctor’s office. Jessica with great diplomacy attempts to prise a Xanax prescription from the doctor, who at least seemingly denies this, handing her a brochure about her lord and saviour Jesus Christ instead. (A later conversation reveals Jessica’s request as successful.)
Jessica hears the sound again while walking by a stream in Pijao, and in long shot leans down towards the flowing water, as if it will repeat it to her. From off-screen right a voice asks if she’s okay. She walks towards it, and finds a man, near her age, sitting by a small wooden table, not very high off the ground, scaling fish. He approaches his task with easy diligence. Jessica joins him, and near-instantly notices the odd quality of his sentences: it’s as if they’re not offered to her specifically, as if she’s overhearing them devoid of context—the kind of words misconstrued on the precipice of wakefulness. “I remember everything,” he says, clearly enough; and as Jessica will discover, he is talking literally. The man’s name is also Hernán (this iteration is played by Elkin Díaz—there’s a nice irony when he claims never to watch television, since the actor is a popular star of Colombian telenovelas). He claims extraterrestrial parentage, and demonstrates his capacity for absorbing the world around him, and its past: he picks up a rock, which he says vibrates with a particular story, an index of the meeting place between the human and non-human. With his infallible memory and reclusive habits, Hernán is Apichatpong’s reimagining of Jorge Luis Borges’s “Funes the Memorious,” for he, like Ireneo Funes, is
the solitary and lucid spectator of the multiform, instantaneous and almost intolerably precise world.Jorge Luis Borges: “Funes the Memorious,” in Labyrinths (Penguin Modern Classics, 2000), 94. [Translated by James E. Irby.]
Jessica asks about his dreams. He avers that he does not sleep. She wants to see what he means. He lies supine down to her right, and simply ceases. He’s shown in medium close-up, his chest doesn’t seem to rise at all, his eyes are open but lifeless. (There’s a similar scene, which plays to a different end, in Déa Kulumbegashvili’s Beginning.) Apichatpong cuts to Jessica, now alone beside the stream, striking a bereft pose; there being no conversation to counterpoint them, the sounds of the water and the jungle now command the soundtrack. It begins to rain. Minutes later, he stirs. The following dialogue snaps one crucial aspect of Memoria into focus:
Jessica: How was it?
Hernán: It’s ok. [Pause.] I just stopped.
This reads a bit like Samuel Beckett when transcribed, but the tone of their speech is different, calmer, more generous. It’s a sincere question, and one with a central significance to Jessica’s life. Her husband, Paul, has died, recently enough that the topic dominates an earlier conversation with Juan. If Paul was involved in the orchid farm in Medellín, then the images of the diseased orchids from the book suddenly attain a more exact figurative charge; it also explains the reaction of the doctor, who recoils after asking about Jessica’s husband. Bereavement would also explain the peculiarity of her walk, her slow treading steps, and the way her long arms are sealed by her sides; it’s as if she hasn’t figured out how to move through space on her own yet. Her question, and the barely concealed agony of it, is an indirect way of asking about Paul; Hernán’s answer, terse though it seems, has a reassuring, no-nonsense aspect to it. Memoria, more definitely here than anywhere else, clarifies itself as a grief film.
But the film’s notion of grief expands enormously in the following scene, in Hernán’s house. The space provokes Jessica, and she begins relating a fearful story about a family in hiding; Hernán reveals her words to be composed of his memories. Unbeknownst to her, she is a conductor (he refers to her as an antenna); she can sense or receive the stimuli he provides her; and since he can remember everything, the scale of this transmission is beyond comprehension. As the pair hold hands, Akritchalerm Kalayanamitr’s sound design transforms from a levelled balance of natural and human sounds, cancelling out the outside world, delving into Jessica’s internal soundscape. The unobliviable noises Hernán makes available to her are a catalogue of griefs, including his own, which points to a fact of the film some critics have sought to downplay. Imogen Sara Smith claims that in Memoria ‘there are no direct references to Colombia’s political or historical traumas, just a pervasive sense of haunted foreboding.’ Likewise, James Wham attests that this scene ‘feels politically deadened in a way that Apichatpong’s films never have before.’ I must have been watching a different film: so the early scene in which Jessica crosses a street in Bogotá while a bus engines misfires loudly, causing a young man to drop down on all fours and run off when he realises the source of the noise, isn’t a direct reference to Colombia’s long last century of endemic political violence? So the image of Jessica driving through a blockade, with Colombian soldiers (heavily financed by the U.S.) lining the roads with their thumbs held aloft, in a gesture designed (and initiated by former president Álvaro Uribe) to assuage motorists fearful of guerrillas taking them hostage, is to be discarded as political quietism? And what of Hernán’s memory of violence, which, due to his age, is likely related to either the cartels or guerrilla-paramilitary conflict?
If the material effects of history are stored in Hernán’s body, and brought out into the open by Jessica’s abilities, then the pair of them together enact something like Antonio Gramsci’s notion of the inventory. Gramsci writes:
The starting-point of critical elaboration is the consciousness of what one really is, and is “knowing thyself” as a product of the historical process to date which has deposited in you an infinity of traces, without leaving an inventory. The first thing to do is to make such an inventory.Antonio Gramsci: Selections from the Prison Notebooks (Lawrence and Wishart, 2003), 324. [Translated by Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell Smith.]
Hernán is the one who contains the infinity of traces; only with Jessica’s help can an inventory be made. This moves the film away from being about her individual grief, his singular wound of political violence, and makes it collective, an attempt to reach beyond one understanding of the world. Further to the point, what Agnes does—disinter the physical mortal remains of the dead for a greater store of human knowledge—is the same as what Jessica and Hernán are doing together, except their material is the aural evidence the departed have left.
As Jessica performs this magic action, she’s framed in a rare medium shot. Apichatpong’s cinematographer, Sayombhu Mukdeeprom, keeps Swinton at a distance for almost the entirety of the film, in medium-long and long shot, and Apichatpong often stages scenes (in the mixing room with the younger Hernán, in the town square being followed by a dog, during the doctor’s consultation) with Swinton’s back to the camera. This distance is sought to deny a simple identification with Swinton as an actor, to emphasise her role as a spectator, and to instil Swinton’s gestures with such specificity: the way she reacts to the younger Hernán’s approximations of the sound, physically registering the shock of it in a different movement each time it’s repeated (a great example of what critic Sheila O’Malley refers to as ‘back-ting’); the way she rests her hand on the table to steady herself while the sound interrupts her evening in the restaurant; the way she gingerly tiptoes around a gallery, embarrassed by the noise her camera makes. Seen now, front-facing, communing with Hernán, and with Apichatpong’s direction, the film’s reparative design reveals itself. She opens the window, and hears the sound again, in several variations. In the next shot a spaceship lifts off from a copse of trees (this should be no surprise, Hernán was not lying), and the ring of smoke it leaves before gliding off resembles Cemetery of Splendour’s erroneous cell in the sky. Apichatpong concludes on a kind of L’Eclisse (1962) gesture, suspending the narrative, evacuating Jessica from the frame; Agnes is shown listening to her notes on a Dictaphone, and Hernán looks up into the distance, shaking his head in discomfort—the burden of being half a human archive. As sounds and shots of the jungle replace the actors, each empty space doesn’t appear empty at all: all of it is marked, invisibly and not, with the signs of the living and the dead. In Memoria, grief is the spur to heal, repair, and most essentially, to recall.