Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Memoria: The Mystifying Power of Sound
What happens when you’re woken up in the middle of the night by a loud noise? You think it’s an intruder, a gunshot, or even worse, a bomb. For most people, that moment of panic is fleeting, but in Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s latest film, Memoria, it’s a moment that never ends. Known simply as “Joe,” he’s always been interested in the ways that the body can create its own experiences, and Memoria is no different. It’s a film that hypnotically paints a sonic landscape and then lulls the viewer into a state of semi-consciousness, where the most unexpected things can happen, and reality can be upended. Joe has created a world where sound is both omnipresent and also causes the body to materialize itself in surprising ways. There’s a perilousness to the film that is palpable, but it’s also curiously calming. It’s as if he is testing his viewer’s sense of security or even their sense of reality. The film is a waking dream, and like all great dreams, it’s impossible to predict. And that’s what makes it so exciting. In a world where everything is considered and where nothing is unexpected, the promise of Memoria is an entirely new experience. Or, perhaps, a hundred old experiences that are collaged together to make something altogether new. Wanna know why? It is a film, unlike anything you’ve ever seen before. It is a journey into the unknown, and like all journeys, it’s impossible to know what is around the next corner.
Tilda Swinton stars as Jessica, a Scottish expatriate living in Medellín, Colombia. The film focuses on her tormented auditory sensation composed of a series of loud strange metallic, earthy bangs and thuds that gradually become more pronounced and disturbing. It causes her to feel anxious, disoriented and even trapped every day as if she is being buried alive. You don’t know where they are coming from or when they will happen, but they make you feel uneasy, just like her firsthand experiences. As the sound becomes increasingly unbearable, she embarks on a frantic search for answers and a way to escape the noise, all the while desperately trying to maintain her grip on reality and her relationships with the people she loves. With these moments of exploding head syndrome unleashing a cacophony of noise, Joe hypnotizes the audience into a meditative state where reality becomes disorganized. The film is a visual experience that moves in the opposite direction to most contemporary horror films. Yet, by its hypnotic sound design and otherworldly aesthetics, it’s as unnerving as anything you will see this year. There’s also a sense of paranoia, where one can’t help but question what’s real and what’s only in one’s head. This uncertainty is what makes the moments so unsettling because the viewers themselves are being tested.
In the same way, Weerasethakul’s previous films are explorations of the unseen. The unseen here is the sound, the intangible, and the moment of madness. These add to the dreamlike and hypnotic quality of the film. We have entered a space where we are at the mercy of another and left with the sense of losing our minds, so the things that we only can count on are Jessica and her moments itself. There are certain scenes in the film where the viewers are unsure of what they are witnessing, as it blends with the soundscape in a way that is both terrifying and mesmerizing. Watching the film feels like being in a dream where you’re unsure of what you’re experiencing, and you’re unable to wake up and escape it, so you have to keep going further into the unknown.
What makes it even more unique is that most of the scenes are filmed with long takes. This is a rare aspect of modern filmmaking and a style that Joe is known for. It allows for a more natural and organic feeling to the story. It’s not like we’re watching a carefully constructed scene, but rather a scene that is happening in real-time. It’s exciting because you can’t anticipate what’s going to happen or even predict it, which adds to the film’s dreamlike nature. The long takes with no cuts also allow for a sense of realism and intimacy, almost as if you are inside the characters’ heads. You feel as though you’re watching real people going through authentic experiences. This is further emphasized by the way that the camera is placed in open spaces to make it seem more real. It makes the viewer feel as though they are part of an experience that is unplanned and unscripted. The distance between the characters and the camera creates a sense of uncertainty and a feeling of being in a different world. The latter aspect is particularly significant. With Joe’s first time filming a movie outside his native country and the character of Jessica being in a foreign environment, we are reminded of the feeling of being lost in a new place. The medium to wide shots leave us with the feeling of the viewer being voyeurs and, at the same time, being witnesses of the world, its beauty, and the lives around them. There is both pleasure and discomfort involved in the experience of watching such a movie, and the way these feelings are presented through the sound design and how it is integrated into the story is what makes it so intriguing. Being completely immersed in the film, we lose ourselves in the experience, getting lost in the world Joe has created, and we are forced to reflect on our own experiences with cinema.
Watching it in a theater is a powerful sensation, and it’s one that is difficult to explain. Hearing the film’s soundscape felt like a mix of a meditation session and a concert. The same could be said of the visuals. As beautiful as they are, they are also disorienting and uncomfortable to look at, so that you are constantly reminded that you are not in one place or one time. It’s all very dreamlike, and that is something that Joe has been known forever since he started making films. You have to experience it for yourself because it is something that cannot be adequately described. Neon’s release strategy for the film is a unique and controversial one. It’s like a concert tour where the film will be shown in one theater at a time across the country. Here’s the part that will shock you to the core: the movie will not be getting a VOD, streaming, or physical release because it will only be shown in theaters forever. Even I am even surprised to be writing this because this roadshow release doesn’t happen very often in the modern world. The only way to see the film is to go to a theater on a certain time and day, and for some people, it might not be possible. I get that this plan is for the experience that the film demands, and I respect that. But it’s still a plan that is not everyone’s cup of tea. I hope that everyone will be able to see this masterpiece as soon as possible and have the chance to experience something that they will never forget.
It is important to note that Memoria is not for everyone because it is a film best suited for those who are open to different experiences. It requires patience and willingness to go with the flow. This is a rare quality in modern filmmaking, where the viewer is constantly being asked to stay engaged and frequently have their minds engaged, and Joe has managed to pull off the feat in his latest. Much like his other films, some people might fall asleep to it or watch it in multiple sittings. The same could be said of Memoria. It is not a film that everyone will like as we all have different tastes and preferences, but hey, that’s what makes art great. For some people, the thought of spending two hours in a dark room watching a woman suffer from her mysterious sensory syndrome might not sound very appealing but for those who are open-minded and willing to explore the boundaries of their mind, see what is behind it, and give it a try, the rewards will be immense.
If you have to chance to see this film, please, I say go for it. Go watch it!