The Inscrutable Movie Memoria Dissected and Meaning Guessed At. I’m not going to BS you like others out there are attempting to do right now, and tell you I have Memoria figured out. Because yeah… come on. No one but Apichatpong Weerasethakul has any real idea of what his movies are actually about. And I defy anyone to tell me differently. Apichatpong – or “Joe” – has been the go-to favorite for cinephiles the world over since his 2010 movie, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives won the Palme d’Or. But his style is unmistakable… unmoving shots, cameras rolling, as the world moves in front of the lens. His movies give a sense of somnambulance. It’s an eerie, other worldly experience… and maybe its appropriate… but I’m getting ahead of myself, and dangerously close to spilling the secrets of Memoria way, way, way, too early.
Many of you will be looking to watch Memoria – the trick is? The distribution of Joe’s movie is crazy, and worthy of its’ own headlines over and above the content of this crazy movie. You see, the film debuted at the New York Film Festival… and then will be touring the world indefinitely. Yes, I know what the word indefinitely means. Forever. On. And. On. And. On. Ad infinitum. Amen. It will screen for one week in one theater, then it will move to the next venue. Want to join the Reddit masses in their frustration? I know, right? I feel you guys. So, yeah – I’m not even going to lie to you and tell you it’s watchable. BUT, if you had the good fortune of landing a ticket? Join me as we break this movie down in order to see if we can figure out what it’s made of… determine its commensurate parts and components. Wow. Cause. Heck. I’m still reeling.
If you are trying to figure out if finding this movie is worth it? Tell me this. Did LOVE the move Personal Shopper with Kristen Stewart? (Because – can’t lie – I loved that movie more than life itself.) I mean everything here – the pacing of Personal Shopper, the mood, the tone, the topics and general meanings (wait, check that one… we are still trying to figure out the meanings of Memoria…) – they all sort of magically align. If you haven’t seen Personal Shopper – here’s your chance. Why? ‘Cause Personal Shopper will be hella easier to watch than Memoria will be right now. Trust me on this one. But, if you still want to take on the challenge of finding and watching this one? Here’s a trailer to make sure you are vibing with this one.
Still intrigued? Buckle up. But do not continue any further if you haven’t seen the movie yet. Just don’t. Determine that it’s better off not knowing, and find a movie walk-through of Encanto or a Marvel movie instead to discuss. Oh, yes… that was really mean. I’m sorry. Wait, no I’m not.
Memoria Movie Walkthrough
First thing you need going into this movie – literally the first scene of this movie sort of information – is that Apichatpong Weerasethakul has suffered from exploding head syndrome in the past. Which is a really rare disease that afflicts the individual in such a way as to cause them to believe that they have awakened from the sound of an imagined loud noise. This is the underpinning of the questions that start this entire movie.
In fact – the movie opens with us staring at Jessica Holland (played by Tilda Swinton) as she sleeps. And by staring, I literally mean, staring. For the first 60 seconds… staring. Darkness, form sleeping, staring, darkness, shadow of form, camera still – not moving, staring. Then a deep, loud BANG. What is this bang? Where did it come from? Is Jessica also suffering from Exploding Head Syndrome? Or was this something deeper going on here?
A few minutes later, a bus backfires, and a man falls to the floor, as if shot. Everyone starts in shock, completely frightened by the loud bang that everyone heard and responded to. Is what Jessica heard a similar experience, or was she the only one that heard it? In order to chase down the sound, and figure it out, Jessica connects with a sound engineer named Hernan (remember that name), and the two of them successfully recreate the sound – or an approximation of the sound anyway, and Jessica swoons, falls into a deep stupor after hearing it. But for the next hour, we don’t hear the sound happen again. It is so absent, that I find myself wondering if something has gone wrong with my speakers. But maybe that was intentional… hit the user with this sound – entice them with it and then go dark.
As the movie begins to stretch its legs, we get the sense that this movie will be less a movie, and more an audio and lyrical adventure. We are treated to poems, and festivals of sounds. But there is hardly any visual movement. Red Notice would be the polar opposite of Memoria in that Red Notice utilizes drones for many of its establishment shots. Swooping, swirling, diving camera shots (so excessive it’s crazy). But here? I could have done the cinematography for this film. Why though? What is the purpose… keep that in the back of your mind as we keep diving.
A Deep Sickness in the Country
Jessica eventually joins a friend? A sister? Co-worker? (my vote is co-worker) at the hospital. She has been working out in the jungle with an indigenous tribe that apparently prays together in the evening. Their prayers? To keep people away from them. hrm. This woman’s husband believes that it is this praying tribe that makes her ill – but this woman isn’t concerned, she’s planning to go right back as soon as she is feeling up to it because she has deadlines.
And during this dinner, Jessica hears the thumping/bang that started the movie out. And voila, we now know that this sound is something that only Jessica can hear, if there was any doubt before. Three different times the sound bangs through the middle of this dinner. It’s startlingly loud, and it actually seems to unnerve her greatly. After this encounter with the sound, Jessica heads back to look for Hernan, but the other people that work there have never heard of a Hernan.
Eventually, Jessica heads out into traffic, to go back to work where a tunnel is being dug. Apparently ancient bones have been found deep within the mountainside. Could this sound be connected to these ancient bones somehow? What is happening to Jessica and why is she hearing this sound that is “of the earth”? Worried, Jessica heads to the doctor and tries to convince the doctor that she needs Xanax. The doctor isn’t too interested in proscribing pills to solve her fake problem… but eventually she agrees and prescribes them for her.
Cut to Jessica walking by a stream, and she hears the deep earthen boom again. She adjusts her head like an antenna and she hears it again, and again. A man notices her, and asks if she’s okay. Turns out, this man’s name is Hernan. Wait, WE KNOW THAT NAME… but this guy is older. The previous Hernan was maybe 25? And this Hernan is maybe 55? It’s hard to tell, but they are significantly different in age.
Apparently, this Hernan really avoids doing anything because he remembers everything. He doesn’t watch TV, he doesn’t listen to music, doesn’t travel… He avoids anything that will burden his mind that is already wound too tightly by the burden of memory after memory after memory. Better yet, Hernan can read the memories of the rocks and items that are all around us. He can read the experiences of people and animals that interacted with anything.
Hold On. Let’s Review – Because it’s About to Get Weird
Jessica is tormented by a deep sound of the earth that plagues her, and keeps her from sleeping. So much so, she believes that she might just be going insane in a very literal way. A new friend, Hernan decides to help her track this sound but soon disappears. Jessica begins piecing together that others are being made ill by the jungles all around them, whether by the jungles themselves, or by the people putting curses on them, she doesn’t know. But more broadly speaking, there is something wrong happening in the earth. Hernan returns later to Jessica, and he is older. He tells her that he can remember every single memory that has every happened to him. Better, he can sense the experiences of normal things all around us. By a man who had his lunch stolen from two men that had this stone…
Buckle Up We Are Going In
Jessica is intrigued by this Hernan fellow and his connection to this other manifestation she met earlier but was much younger. This fellow talks about himself in a plural, “when we sleep, we do not dream” sort of connoting something bigger and broader than himself. Who is this Hernan?
Jessica goes back to Hernan’s home and she walks around his bedroom, looking at things, touching things, feeling out the air of this room. Eventually Jessica tells of a memory that she can sense from the bed. She remembers hiding under the bed, of people coming, being frightened. Memories of a mother, kissing her palm, caressing her fingers. And Hernan tells her that this isn’t her memory, but rather it is Hernan’s. Jessica asks if this sound she keeps hearing is actually his memory instead of her own? And Jessica puts his hands on her arm to read the memory of it, to experience this sound. Now, during the section of the film, it’s an unflinching 10-minute-cut. Single camera view, the two are sitting at the table, there is very little talking, but rather it’s experiences of soundscapes. A rainstorm comes. People come, then leave. Cries of panic and chaos. All of these things sweep up, rise, and then fall again. It’s like listening to whole civilizations rise and fall again all around them. The soundscapes are extraordinary in every way.
After it’s all over, Hernan says that it’s like she is an antenna that can tune itself to his memories. That she can hear his past, and his thoughts. She’s an empath. Better yet, since even Jessica has guessed that Hernan is already dead, maybe she’s a spiritualist. A channeler of the dead, and the spirits of this world that are still roaming the planet’s surface. Who knows. But the experience for her is a lot. Jessica cries, and physically has to disengage her antenna from receiving any more of these long lost experiences.
Afterwards, Jessica walks to the window, and now she is hearing sounds from memories long long before. Because Jessica has guessed that Hernan is dead (she even asks him if it is awful being dead – and he responds that it isn’t, not specifically) she surmises that she isn’t even there. That this place she is in with him is somewhere other. As they sit at the table together, Jessica watches as Hernan touches her arm and she begins to sense him… his life, his past. Jessica cries as she overwhelmed by the sensations of Hernan, this place, this time.
The movie ends, it cuts to a scene of an immense jungle. And there, nestled in the trees is a… spaceship.
Right. The spaceship swivels in the air, lifts off, and then hits its gas, and out the back of it explodes a ring of what? Exhaust? Heat? A Portal? And as the spaceship moves away, the exhaust ring begins to fade, and recede. Hernan sits on the porch and listens as a report is radio’d out from the excavation area that describes the human remains… a person with a hole in the back of the skullcap. A description that flashes back to a discussion Jessica had with a scientist earlier in the movie about the remains of a young girl that she was studying. She too had a hole in the back of her head, probably a human sacrifice of some sort. So what happened with this individual that was being radio’d about? Maybe a similar fate?
And as the report of the remains is broadcast, Hernan holds his head behind his ear, and he begins to cry.
A Little About the Memoria Cinematography
I mentioned earlier in the walkthrough that I could have been the cinematographer for this movie…
A) Place camera on tripod
B) Lock camera in place
C) Call ACTION – Hit record
D) Let it run ten minutes
E) Yell cut
Here we have a shot of a street. Here’s a shot of cars in a parking lot with the car alarms going off. There we watch as Jessica stands and stares into the distance. It is a slow moving visual film, but it’s in the lyricism and aural landscape that makes all the difference in the world for this film. If watching this movie and you are lost, close your eyes and turn up the volume… because you might just be missing the real magic of this particular film.
A Little About the Sound Design of Memoria
Much should be made of this movie’s sound design… why? Because it’s where all of the effort and the magic has been concentrated. It’s rare to see such a sedate movie with such complicated sound vistas and tableaux. We sit staring at the un-moving screen, and during several different key moments, the sound of the space completely changes. We listen as a boy and his father march across the screen, but no one is there. We listen as a storm spins up, attacks the location, and then dissipates… all with nothing happening in front of us. It’s as if our aural sensory receptors are plugged into a different movie entirely.
So What Is Happening In Memoria?
First, it has to be said, that in 2016, when Apichatpong decided he wanted to make a movie featuring the jungles of his favorite Western novels, he decided Colombia was the place to go. So he went. All his previous movies had been made in Thailand, but for this movie he wanted to tap into a different under current, a different truth. And to head to Colombia in 2016 was a bit of a problem, seeing as though there had been a decade long war with rebels who had only just signed a treaty for peace. And when Apichatpong did a showing of the movie Memoria, what did the locals interpret it to mean? Well, they saw it as a discussion about the internal politics of the struggle of Colombians. War. Strife.
Joe went to Colombia – he toured the hospitals because he grew up in a hospital – and he was comfortable in those environs. Then he became transfixed by the works of archaeology there in the country, and then he became fascinated with the issues of justice. And while he was there in Colombia he thought he had found a place – a perfect place, where he could introduce a character that would be a stranger. Simultaneously, he and Tilda Swinton had been attempting to work together for years. So he called her up and let her know that he had found a place, and a character that she could inhabit, and the two of them spent time trying to learn the arc and trajectory of Jessica and where this story would take her.
Theories to Explain Memoria
Personally, I believe that I have a very clear feeling for where this movie is going and what it is saying. But it’s one of those things that is better experienced, and felt, than described. Almost like the act of writing it down dissolves the meaning as it’s written. If that makes any sense at all. But I see it as this non-native Colombian visiting Colombia as a foreigner, as a stranger. And she is just bumping her way through the country, learning, and experiencing things as she goes. But she is deeply touched by some part of this world, and this experience at the very beginning of the film. An enormous bang, an enormous sound that lights up everything inside her. It causes her to drop what she is doing, and begin to search for this meaning. To learn. And so she follows this sound to wherever it will take her. And as she does she meets this spirit of the country’s past. A deep wound in this country’s history – a person that might have been sacrificed, cut down in his prime maybe even.
For me, the thing that really muddies the waters here is the convolution that is the country’s political chaos. Over fifty years of chaos has burdened the nation. And the reason for the fighting is as varied as the groups involved. The FARC and other guerrilla groups say that they are fighting for the rights of the poor… and for social justice. The government has declared that it is fighting for order and stability in order to protect the rights of citizens. And the various paramilitary groups seem to just be reacting to the threats created by the various guerrilla groups in the nation. It’s really quite confusing. But it is this backdrop within which Joe has dropped his movie. It’s not something you can just dismiss.
And then there is Apichatpong’s perspective on the film, on Jessica, and it’s possible meaning… “When we shot chronologically, we started to feel like, “Is this her? Is this her?” So, in the end, I think I didn’t know the movie until later in the film, in the stream part and also in the room with older Hernán. And I think we understood at that point, this movie is maybe about just not holding on to anything. Just let it go. And just be again, just be, and try to get in touch with what you hear and the people in front of you.” Which I find amusing solely because Jessica has ZERO connection to the people right in front of her. She attempts to connect with her co-worker, but their conversations, their associations, are always diametrically opposed to one another. They seem to be heading in different directions. But Jessica’s relationship with the dead? That is another story. She is empathetic, a listener, a perceiver. She is fascinated, and tries her best to grapple with this person in front of her, real or imagined.
Personally, I Think…
I’m going to be really honest here. I personally believe that Apichatpong went to Colombia, and he explored. As he experienced, as he learned, he documented and wrote. He fell in love with the hospitals, the archeological work, the jungles… and he wrote some more. Then he invited Swinton to come and help him find Jessica. Apichatpong has said as much that he didn’t know who it was that he was trying to grasp until audiences saw the movie for the first time. And it wasn’t until the filming of the scene in Hernan’s room that he thought he’d begun to discover who she was. An antenna of the dead. A reader of the land, its’ people, and all those that had been lost. And I will say this for Apichatpong, he did manage to capture the zeitgeist of a country in loss, in mourning… weeping for their dead.
Edited by: CY