“Memoria” is a Spanish-English drama film directed by Apichatpong Weerasethakul. Set and shot entirely in Colombia, this is Apichatpong’s first venture outside his native Thailand, both in terms of production as well as language. “Memoria” follows the story of Jessica, a British ex-pat living in Colombia, who hears a strange noise and sets out to find its source. The film, which was awarded the Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival in 2021, is quintessentially an Apichatpong film in all its characteristics, strangeness, and cinematic splendor.
Plot Summary: What Is ‘Memoria’ All About?
The film begins with Jessica waking up one night to a tremendously loud banging noise, almost resembling a gunshot. A dozen or so cars in a parking lot are shown getting their alarms triggered all of a sudden; it is probably due to the noise, which might have triggered them. Jessica is a British woman living in Medellin, Colombia, and is currently visiting her sick sister and her husband in Bogota. She spends some time inside the hospital ward with her sister, who seems to be fading in and out of sleep and also losing her short-term memory. Jessica meets up with a sound engineer Hernan in order to understand the strange sound that she had heard by trying to replicate it. She describes the sound like that of an enormous concrete ball crashing against a metal wall and tries to find the closest alternative sound from Hernan’s sound library.
While walking through the streets of Bogota one evening, she hears the sound once more. Sometime later, she meets up with Hernan once again, who makes her listen to a sound that he has created and shows some interest in getting closer to her. A bit unbelieving and surprised, Jessica simply walks away. Her sister, Karen, now seems to be doing fine and is enjoying a meal at a restaurant with her husband, Juan, and their son. Jessica joins them and feels strange about the conversation, as the others at the table talk about someone who they refer to as being alive but whom Jessica remembers to be dead. It is here that she hears the loud bang for the third time. Her sister tells her of her current job, where she is working as part of a team trying to investigate a mysterious tribe of people living deep inside the Amazon forests—a tribe that channels ancestral magic but chooses to stay away from outside contact as they can cast a spell to keep people away from them.
Earlier, Jessica had befriended a woman who had shown her skeletal remains that had been unearthed from a site in the forest. The skeleton apparently belonged to a young girl alive six thousand years ago and had probably been killed off as part of a ritualistic sacrifice. Jessica decides to consult a doctor about the noise that she keeps hearing and also because she has been unable to sleep at all since that first night. The doctor is unable to help her, refusing to prescribe her Xanav and asking her to turn to God or art. With all of this in mind, Jessica drives away from the city to the countryside and forest in search of answers to the mysterious noise that keeps coming back to her.
Is Jessica Imagining It All?
The character of Jessica is what is central to the entire film. It is a character that is beautifully crafted in the very personal style of Apichatpong Weerasethakul—one that is carefully woven, and yet, seems to have been made without any care or nurture at all. Being a British white woman, the very reason for Jessica’s existence in Medellin or Bogota is missing. A short sequence showing her going around looking for a refrigerator for orchids can be perceived as the only mention of her profession. In every other aspect, she is completely rootless and without any purpose. Almost as an extension of this rootlessness, she starts losing her sense of time and reality. Firstly, she is confused about the loud, banging, sonic-boom-like noise that she hears, as everyone else around her seems to be completely unaware of it. Then, she seems to mess up her memory. She seems to misremember and get some sequence of events muddled up.
The film never makes any mention of any explanation, again, in the true style of the director. It is possible to think of Jessica gradually losing her mind and imagining everything, but that is the most simple and least entertaining of all possibilities. One of the strongest characteristics that make Apichatpong such an extraordinary and celebrated filmmaker is the true uncertainty that he brings to his work. Like his character, his film narrative too starts meddling up timelines and perhaps, misremembering as well. The narrative sheds linearity in the common sense of the term, as it seems to intermix different sequences. Jessica is seen visiting the excavation site in the countryside and then seen sitting with her sister on a city bench, consulting a doctor in Bogota, and then again going around in the forest. Towards the very beginning of the film, after she visits her sister in the hospital, she is seen sitting with Juan and signing a death certificate. Whose death certificate is it? Going by the director’s style, it might very well be that of her sister.
‘Memoria’ Ending, Explained: The Man Who Remembers It All
While traveling through the forest, Jessica comes across a house with a man sitting in front and cleaning the scales off of fish. Through their conversation, the man claims to remember everything that he has ever experienced, not just in his current life, but presumably from the beginning of existence as a whole. The two enter the house, where Jessica starts to remember events from her childhood that she remembers to have taken place in that very house, and then questions her existence not just in reality but in the present time as well. She looks out the window and sees an alien spaceship flying out into the sky, creating a sonic boom exactly like the one she kept hearing earlier. Images of calm, still nature with people relatively inactive follow, as a radio transmission talking about an earthquake is heard in the background.
Coming to the question of what any of this really means is the trickiest as well as the most satisfactory part of watching a film by Apichatpong. Through all his works, he has only asked and made one feel, and never answered. His films are more to be perceived, to be felt rather than understood, because there is hardly anything objective to understand, and most of it is a subjective experience. ‘Memoria’ definitely plays around with memory and remembrance (obviously, as the name suggests), which the film’s viewing experience evokes as well.
The viewers hear the sonic boom once at the very beginning, and then when Jessica tries to reconstruct a similar noise with Hernan’s help, one cannot help but try and pick one’s own memory and compare the sound heard in the present with that in the memory. When Jessica recalls her memory inside the house of the strange man, the man, too, recounts his own memory in the same space, at different times, but their memories seem to connect spatially. The entire film can be interpreted as a psychological illness, a myth or legend, or simply a story about a different reality. Especially since it is set in Colombia, the film, along with the director’s style, does invoke slight memories of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s writings. Just like the very old man with enormous wings, “Memoria” can be seen exactly as the story of a woman who could hear alien spaceships and who lost herself in time.
Overall, ‘Memoria’ is a stimulatingly exciting film to watch, especially for those acquainted with the style of Apichatpong and other exponents of South-East Asian cinema, which play around with cinematic time. For obvious reasons, the film lacks the touch of Thai cultural folklore and local myth found in ‘Uncle Boonmee’ or ‘Tropical Malady,’ but every other aspect of the director’s style remains intact. The use of cinematic elements is also much like in his previous works. The camera is mostly placed in one fixed position and almost sees things unfold in front of it. The editing follows the tradition of contemporary Asian alternative cinema, which holds a frame for much longer before and after any activity takes place. Tilda Swinton’s performance as a shaky yet composed Jessica is brilliant, to say the least. All of this together makes ‘Memoria’ an extraordinary experience, questioning human memory, thought, and existence as well.
‘Memoria’ is a 2021 Psychological Thriller film written and directed by Apichatpong Weerasethakul.