An existential film about the strangeness of modern life

The first thing the viewer hears at Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Memory is a strong but distant idiot. The vague sound wakes Jessica Holland (played by Tilda Swinton) from her sleep and then begins to haunt her. For the next two hours and 15 minutes, Jessica tries to figure out what she is hearing all the time, a distracting noise seemingly perceptible only to her. This story may sound like cosmic horror, but Weerasethakul’s films are not so easily linked to a genre. Jessica’s journey includes romance, family drama, science fiction, and deep philosophical discussion.

“It’s like ‘a big ball of concrete’ falling into a metal well βάλ surrounded by seawater,” Jessica tells a sound engineer, trying to describe the unusual click so she can recreate it for her. Jessica’s Audio Odyssey set in Colombia is inspired by real life — Weerasethakul has suffered from “head exploding syndrome”, a highly cinematic sleep disorder involving hallucinations of loud noises. But its existential mystery Memory has universal application. Weerasethakul unpacks a feeling that everyone has probably experienced at some point in their lives: the feeling that something is wrong cosmically.

Shortly after hearing the thump for the first time, Jessica crosses the street when she hears another bang – only this time, it’s a boomerang bus and everyone around her also freezes in surprise. A person dives to the ground scared and then runs away when he realizes his mistake, most likely out of embarrassment. But the strangeness of his behavior can not be immediately dismissed. In another series, at night, parked cars in a parking lot begin to sound their alarms one by one, as if awakening from some invisible force.

Tilda Swinton character talking to a sound engineer "Memory"
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All of these scenes, as well as many other unrelated moments throughout the film, feel like “malfunctions in the Matrix,” the kinds of quirks that can pile up without any real explanation. As she digs deeper to try to identify her noise, Jessica, a Scottish expatriate, travels across Colombia, where she runs a flower business, moving between Medellin, Bogota and the countryside in search of answers. Weerasethakul is not a storyteller with a big plot and this is not a thriller with a dark plot waiting to be revealed. But Memory still offers more answers than one would expect, even if they are fantastic and oblique.

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This approach is a feature of Weerasethakul’s cinematic creation, which usually combines fantasy narratives with questions about the pressures of modern existence. His most famous work, the one awarded with the Golden Palm Uncle Boonmee who can recall his previous lives, is an elegiac view of the last days of a man as he speaks to ghosts emerging from the jungle. It’s something strange and serene, in which one can discuss daily existence with a catfish. Weerasethakul’s films have a supine quality, sometimes practically encouraging the viewer to wink for a few minutes, but very few artists like him work in cinema today.

The unorthodox liberation strategy for Memory, which eventually spreads to the United States this month after the COVID-19 delays, therefore makes sense. Instead of receiving the traditional limited edition and online release that many internationally acclaimed films receive, Memory will travel across the countryside in a road show style, playing one-week exclusive engagements in theaters until the fall. The design guarantees that the film will be available in most of the larger cities with powerful art galleries. Beyond that, it’s a way to get people to see the movie on the big screen.

I highly recommend this experience. Memory was one of my favorite movies of 2021, but I can not imagine it having the same power on a small screen, given its boring pace. It’s the kind of movie you should be locked in a dark room with while obsessing over its quirky details and sharing your curiosity with a dedicated audience. Yes, one of his most exciting scenes involves Jessica sitting in a room listening to various sounds with an engineer. Another sees her just sitting at a table, at a meditation conference with a man she meets in the countryside. Both moments pushed me to the edge of my seat in the first watch and the revelations that Weerasethakul makes in the last act made me shout with excitement. Memory is a riveting cinematic creation. it’s worth an equally immersive viewing experience to fully enjoy it.

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