(NYFF review) Memoria: Rethinking the Purpose of Film with our Feeble Memories

Near the beginning of summer this year, I heard a loud explosion from outside my house. It sounds like both a bang and an explosion, but what intrigued me was that it doesn’t sound like anything I’ve ever heard before.

Right after it happened, I ran to my neighborhood’s Facebook group to see if anyone has noticed it. I saw a thread of comments talking about it–everyone as weirded out as me. As time goes and as we get more information about it, a few comments seem to suggest that it’s the sound of a car backfiring. I was skeptical about that explanation because it didn’t sound like a car backfiring at all (and there’s no way a car backfiring would sound that loud, and stretching through an entire small Brooklyn neighborhood), but I shrugged it off.

Things get stranger the next day, and the day after. The same exact explosion happened again in the next two days, but the thing that gives me the creeps is that it happened on the same time. Down to the minute. The Facebook thread crowds up again. A lot of the comments are those expresing confusion, but in the end, they attributed the sound to fireworks or a gunshot. I hold that temporary explanation in my mind, however, I’m still not entirely convinced. It doesn’t sound like fireworks, nor a gunshot, nor a car backfiring. And, the most curious one of all: how the heck do the explosions happen at the same exact time, down to a T?? Sometimes I think I might be overthinking and my mind is playing tricks on me, but I have more comfort in thinking that these explosions could be attributed to the unknown.

Dispatch from the FB group

A few months after it happened, I buried that incident deep in my brain. And, when I thought I could let it go and buy the conventional explanation, Memoria brought back those doubts again. I never thought in my life that I could relate to an Apichatpong Weerasethakul movie; his movies has always had that air of fantasy and a heightened view of reality, that in many ways, my dull life could never achieve. However, in his latest film, he reminded me that sometimes there are unexplained events in our life that require more than facts and logical reasoning to explain. Or, maybe it just couldn’t be explained at all.

Memoria starts with Jessica (Tilda Swinton), a visiting British scientist in Colombia who is awaken from her sleep by a loud bang. The film follows her life in Colombia as she tries to figure out the reason for these incidents, as she keeps hearing the bang over and over again, at random times. As she goes through this journey, she meets several people, helping her get closer to the truth (or not?), while she faces a lot of other truths concerning memory, hearing, grief, etc.

One of Jessica’s encounters is with Hernan, an audio engineer and musician who works at Jessica’s university. Jessica meets Hernan through their mutual colleague, and she reaches to him for help as he helps her recreate the bang she’s been hearing. A pivotal scene with Hernan is a scene where they meet at Hernan’s studio–where Jessica explains the sound to Hernan as Hernan goes through his library of sound effects, skewing and altering them until it explains what Jessica is hearing. This scene is fascinating to me since it shows (very patiently) how two minds work to recreate something that is a mystery, however, there is an underlying frustration in that effort too. We see Jessica scrambling through different adjectives to explain the sound to Hernan, while at the same time thinking about it very carefully, taking the time to really put the sound into her words. We see Hernan scrolling through the pletora of banging sounds in his audio library, yet none of them seem to fit perfectly, even through alteration. This frustration made me think about those times in my life I had to explain something that is abstract, like when I had to explain my weird dreams to my friends, or that bang I heard last summer.

Apichatpong Weerasethakul explores things that are hard to explain in Memoria, especially sound. The sound design in Memoria is one of the best sound design I’ve ever seen in theaters. However, with a story like Memoria, it’s very crucial to have the sound tell a story. The source of Jessica’s troubles comes from a mysterious sound, however, her journey to uncover the mystery is also sonically driven. We see Jessica witnessing another person fleeing a banging sound in the middle of the street in Medellin. In another scene, we see Jessica listening to a music quartet jamming together. With Apichatpong’s long takes, we get immersed into the music just as Jessica does, and it creates the same sort of dreamlike quality we get from his long visual shots. Besides music and distinguishable sounds, Apichatpong also immerses us into the sounds of his environments–a busy street corner in Medellin, the tranquil natural sounds of rural Colombia, and even the hushed sounds of objects clattering in a university library. There’s this magical scene near the end of the film where Apichatpong reaches the peak of his masterful sound design–it’s a revelation as Jessica gets closer to her journey, and centering the scene’s soundscape is the best way to realize that scene.

Apichatpong’s soundscapes in Memoria goes hand in hand with his signature directing style. As described by its title, this film deals a lot with the theme of memory in a way that confuses and lulls its viewers at the same time. Apichatpong’s approach to the topic of memory reminds me of films like Abbas Kiarostami’s Certified Copy. Memory is a very personal thing to the characters in both Certified Copy and Memoria, and there is a frustration in not being able to explain things that might seem very simple, and that frustation will come crashing down once our characters are able to understand each other beyond words, and through things such as feelings, sounds, and even the realm of the metaphysical. (Don’t you wish, at times, that humans could communicate telepathically so you won’t spend so much goddamn time explaining things to people?) We spend so much time arguing with other people on the basis of each other’s feeble memories–what seems real to us might not exist at all to other people. These themes appear in both Certified Copy and Memoria, but Apichatpong takes the theme of memory to the next level by altering the truth and the memory of our character visually. Throughout the film, we experience events through Jessica’s point of view, and in turn we also experience Jessica’s feeble memory; we experience the same frustration as Jessica, being told that the person she interacted with earlier or the sound she heard (in which we physically saw/heard them in the movie) never existed in the first place. With this portrayal, Apichatpong interrogates our relationship with the medium of film and footage–a medium that historically has been a vehicle of documentation and throughout history been a point of reference for the truth. Why does the usually reliable footage tricks us this time? We would think that what experienced by Jessica is truth because it is caught on camera, but in Memoria, what is filmed is not necessary the objective truth. Or does objective truth exist, after all? (I don’t think Apichatpong thinks so.)

The only thing I dislike about the film is its “big reveal”. After I finished watching the film I thought that the film’s “big reveal” is more obvious than what I expected (I liked the resolution of Uncle Boonmee, his 2010 film, way better.) However, when Apichatpong addresses the reveal in a Q&A at the end of the screening, he said “Who knows if it’s real or not?” Memoria gradually forces me to abandon the traditional roles of cinema and footage to document and prove truth, and it asks me to embrace sensory mysteries even outside of the realm of cinema. After I watched the film, I returned to the sound I heard in the beginning of summer. Was it real, or was it just the collective imagination of a single Brooklyn neighborhood–a common memory its people never knew they had?

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