Memoria (2021)

Jessica’s quest for learning about origin of certain sounds which she hears, leads her to a mysterious connection of two individuals who can connect with past memories, earth and nature.

10/20/20235 min read

Tilda Swinton and Juan Pablo Urrego in 'Memoria'
Tilda Swinton and Juan Pablo Urrego in 'Memoria'

English, Spanish,

136 mins, 2021

Director: Apichatpong Weerasethakul

Cast: Tilda Swinton, Jeanne Balibar, Juan Pablo Urrego, Daniel Gimenez Cacho

Awards: Winner of Jury Prize and Nominee Palme d’Or, Cannes Film Festival, 2021; Winner, Golden Hugo, Chicago International Film Festival (IFF), 2021; Nominee Grand Prix, Ghent IFF, 2021; Nominee FIPRESCI Prize, Palm Springs IFF; Nominee Golden Rooster Awards (Chinese Mainland Film Awards), 2023

Jessica (Tilda Swinton) is woken up by a loud sound in the middle of the night. She gets up and looks around only to discover that there is nothing that must have caused that sound. She is an expat living in Columbia. Almost at the same time, parked cars mysteriously start flashing lights and sounding burglar alarms which soon stop. Why and how? We don’t know yet. Next day she visits her sister, Karen (Agnes Brekke) is admitted to a hospital in Bogota. They talk about her dreams. Later she meets Karen’s husband who helps her with the paperwork required for her business. She is handling flower business in the city of Medellin, after her husband Paul’s death. It seems, Jessica is the only one who hears the sound and not everyone around her.

To know more about the sound she hears, she visits a young sound designer, Hernan (Juan Pablo Urrego). After some hit and trials they arrive at a sound which is very nearly the sound heard by Jessica. So then, what next? Well, we are not told and it seems even script was clueless about why in first place Jessica seeks the help of a sound designer because even if he is able to zero in on the kind of sound she hears, how can he help her trace the origin of the sound? So this line of investigation gets suspended.

Later, while waiting at hospital, she notices her car, and her car alone kept in parking lot, blazing burglar alarm and flashing lights which strangely is not heard or noticed by people around the car and it automatically stops after some time. So such mysterious things keep happening around her. While waiting at hospital she strikes friendship with a doctor examining excavations. Meanwhile, Hernan works with her ‘sounds’ and creates a tune and shows it to Jessica which she appreciates. They get friendly and visit a cold storage manufacturer for her flower business though the deal doesn’t work out.

Karen is now OK and back to life. Jessica has dinner with Karen’s family where they talk about Karen’s work in amazon jungles. Later Jessica visits the sound studio to meet Hernan but to her surprise, she learns that nobody by the name of Hernan works there. Jessica drives towards countryside and in some town visits a doctor about her insomnia and why is she hearing those sounds which is basically not letting her sleep. The doctor thinks these are just hallucinations and gives her Xanax for relaxation but cautions her about its addictive nature and urges her to turn to religion.

As Jessica is roaming near a small water stream, she encounters a man, probably in his late forties, again with the name Hernan (Elkin Diaz) who is sitting alone and scaling fish. He seems a strange man, who has the ability to remember everything, can understand language of animals and birds, and talk to nature and therefore he reasons, he prefers to stay alone. He does not even dream when he sleeps and his eyes are open. Jessica becomes curious and feels some connection with him. They both go to his house and while they are sitting together, she has visions of Hernan’s past. While talking she asks him whether he too hears the sounds that she hears. Hernan says Yes and tells her that those sounds are before they took birth. As they hold hands while sitting across a table, Jessica is able to hear conversations that took place during Hernan’s childhood. She gets up and stands near window and hears sounds akin to the ‘bang’ sounds which she keeps hearing. The film then abruptly cuts into a scene showing forest and a camouflaged alien spacecraft which lifts off with loud sonic boom. A local broadcast reports it as a mild earthquake. We see Hernan feeling something strange and he shivers a bit before becoming normal.

The film, like his earlier films, is characterized by super slow pace, with wide and lengthy shots which doesn’t cut to close ups even when the need is felt. The content goes from mysterious to sci-fi, from medical to archeology and from urban to rural and yet doesn’t engage you. The long takes with lot of silences- in a movie about sound and sounds starts with a definite purpose of discovering origin of strange sounds heard by Jessica but travels aimlessly (reason for going to sound studio, buying refrigerators for flower business which we do not see at all and interest in archeology) like a misguided youth and settles down with alien spacecraft leaving earth. The dots don’t connect- frankly, I could not connect and hence it doesn’t get even a wee bit interesting beyond initial few minutes. The only reason for us to stay awake is Tilda Swinton who puts her heart and soul in the story.

About the director, Apichatpong Weerasethakul

Born in Bangkok in 1970, Apichatpong is a prolific film director, screenwriter, producer and artist from Thailand. His art installations, which consist of package of short films and displays, are regularly exhibited in various art galleries in Europe. Born to physician parents, who both worked in a hospital in the city of Khon Kaen, he grew up in a traditional Buddhist family.

He graduated as an Architect from Khon Kaen University in 1994 where during the course he made his first short film, ‘Bullet’ in 1993. Later he went to Chicago and completed ‘Master of Fine Arts’ in Filmmaking from School of Art Institute of Chicago in the year 1997. His debut feature was a documentary, ‘Mysterious Object at Noon’ in which the crew travelled across Thailand and asked various people to add in their own words to a continuing story. With the premier at ‘Rotterdam Film Festival’ in January 2000, the film received warm reception at various film festivals across the world. It won Grand Prize at Jeonju international Film festival, NETPAC Special mention award at Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival and was exhibited in London, Singapore and Hong Kong among other countries.

In 2010 he made ‘Uncle Bonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives’ made on the theme of reincarnation. The film won Palme d’Or at Cannes Film Festival, 2010 and was selected as Thai entry for that year’s Oscar Awards but it did not make it to the final list of nominees. Apichatpong’s present work ‘Memoria’ seems to be an extension of this 2010 film in which a broader theme of connection with nature and surrounding non-living objects is explored. This is his first film outside Thailand and in English and Spanish language.