Before Covid-19 destroyed any sense of normality in the world, Apichatpong’s Memoria was one the most anticipated films for the 2020 film festival circuit. Alas, Cannes was cancelled and its debut was postponed for the following year. I had my initial opportunity to see the film with its inclusion Melbourne International Film Festival 2021. Except, that too was cancelled due to the emergence of the Delta variant. A few months after, Apichatpong announced his unusual release schedule planned for the film: he intended for it to be only viewable at the cinema — an interesting proposition, but only on the condition that it play singularly at one cinema at a time during its run — a not so agreeable proposition. Already having lost my chance to see the film on the festival circuit, it seemed any future opportunity to see film lay indeterminate, left to the whims of a bizarre rollout. Fortunately, the recent release of an accompanying book by Fireflies Press meant a special screening was scheduled for my home city, finally allowing me to see the film in an actual cinema. Much has been talked up by its creators of the importance of the cinematic experience to the film. So what does Memoria entail?
The film begins with Jessica (Tilda Swinton) awakening in the night to a loud bang of indeterminate origin. She is an expat living in Bogota, Colombia who is also visiting her sister who has been hospitalised with a mysterious illness. Jessica spends her days roaming the various spaces around the city: museums, universities, libraries as well as the bustling streets. Soon, the mysterious bang returns and invades her waking hours. She recruits a friendly sound engineer named Hernan to digitally recreate the sound for her. Other strange happenings occur. Hernan disappears and apparently has never existed: no other person at the university can recall who he is. In the later stages of the film, another mysterious man is encountered who also goes by the name of Hernan. He claims to have never left his village because he “remembers everything” and does not want to be overwhelmed by the world’s dense sensory information. Although initially frightened and disturbed by the sound, Jessica is eventually drawn to it and becomes open to the possibilities of what it may represent.
Similar to Apichatpong’s previous films, Memoria does not abide by the usual conventions of narrative and character development of most cinema. Which is not to say there is no narrative or aspects of character, but that the progression and structure of the film is more idiosyncratic to the director’s means of expressionism. The sequencing of events and their relation to one another is quite loose — he is the type of filmmaker that is comfortable including digressionary moments and unresolved narrative threads. What I found impressive was the conceptual underpinning that grounds the strange events and loose plotting of the story.
Sound and our relationship to it appears as the central focus. The re-occurrence of the unexpected bang throughout the film keeps the audience in anticipation in otherwise calm or quiet scenes. As such, a viewing experience of Memoria provokes a greater sensory awareness of the ambient sounds of spaces. Careful attention to detail in the sound design is used to document the various acoustic properties of the locations featured, the way in which the “silence” of a hospital is not the same as the silence of an art gallery; the difference in how a “bang” in a bustling city street is but one note in a cacophony, as opposed to a rural countryside, where its presence lingers as it reverberates back into quietness.
It is with this attentive approach to sound design that Apichatpong capitalises on the superior audio afforded by the cinema. I’ve often found other advocates for the cinematic experience, such as Nolan and Villeneuve, usually overcompensate by going maximalist in approach: think Hans Zimmer drone farts blaring as a constant. By contrast, Memoria adopts a much wider dynamic range. When the film is quiet, it is quiet; when something loud occurs, it has more impact, a physical presence. I even noticed spatial aspects within the sound mix, the reoccurring bang erupting from different areas of the cinema.
Certain scenes suggest how cultural knowledge and memory shape our comprehension of sounds. A Colombian man instinctively retreats in fear at the innocuous event of a burst bus tire, perhaps hinting at a reaction formed from the memory of conflict. Other scenes recontextualise familiar sounds into strange phenomena, such as a chorus of car alarms spontaneously erupting in an extended take: we recognise the sound and its semiotic meaning, but the surreal nature of the sequence emphasises how bizarre the aesthetics of this auditory signal actually is.
Part of Jessica’s anxiety of the sound is not solely due its sudden abruptness, but also due to her lack of comprehension of its source. Communicating in both Spanish and English, she struggles to articulate the particularities of the noise, describing it both as “metallic” and “earthlike”. Her status as an expat and lack of fluency with the spoken language suggest themes of cultural dislocation and displacement. The loose sequencing of events and digressionary asides to different locations also, at times, dislocate the viewer. But rather than a moody portrait of alienation, Memoria also explores the possibilities to connect, to attune to the surroundings around us. These moments of narrative obtuseness seem to encourage the viewer to listen, to hear what contextual noises may be present, to contemplate what they mean, what they might say about the space in question.
In the conclusion of the film, Apichatpong includes a somewhat hilarious literalisation of the origin of the sound. But rather than appearing as a prescriptive answer to the mystery of the film, I interpreted it as a whimsical visualisation of one the possibilities of what it could be. After all, the fantastical is often literal in his films: a relative can turn into a monkey spirit after mating with one, a soldier can be hunted by the ghost of a tiger shaman, or a woman can be visited by ancient Thai princesses explaining why there is a sleeping epidemic. In Memoria, this bizarre ending is almost immediately contradicted by an additional epilogue that suggests another possible source for the sound. Like his prior body of work, the intention lies less in clarifying ambiguities but is more content to leave on an enigmatic note, leaving room for audience interpretation.
The film’s greatest success is how our experience as an audience mirror that of Jessica throughout the narrative. Like her, we begin startled and confused by the appearance of the sound. As it continues, we too become more conscious, more curious, more inquisitive of the nature of sounds encountered. It’s fitting the film ends on the familiar rumble of an approaching thunderstorm — we recognise the sound, understand its origin, yet the experience of the film has made it sound more mysterious, more fantastical, and perhaps, has invited us to use our imagination in the multitude of possibilities of what it could be.