Meditation comes in many forms. One might listen to contemplative music, sit in self-reflective silence, commune with nature, get a massage, consider poetry, or watch an Apichatpong Weerasethakul (Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, Tropical Malady) film. The Thai writer, producer, director, and Cannes darling has made a name for himself as a philosophical filmmaker with a singular penchant for wedding the cinematic and the spiritual in visually dense, gorgeous, quiet, and simply-plotted stories that often pack a surprise mystical punch. His newest, Memoria, fits that description to a tee.
Memoria marks the Palme d’Or-winning director’s English- and Spanish-language debut, but that’s a bit misleading. There aren’t many words spoken. Likewise, it marks his first film shot outside of his native Thailand, which is also misleading. As far as we’re concerned, the jungle of Colombia could be the jungle of Thailand we’ve come to know so well through his films. Lastly, it marks his first collaboration with Tilda Swinton, which is not misleading. She’s onscreen a lot.
Jessica Holland (Swinton) is a patient, soft-spoken Scottish botanist working in Bogotá. One morning at dusk, she hears a loud, earthy boom. It happens again and keeps happening. The sound of the booms hang in the air, reverberating across the jungle and eventually fading from the soundscape, giving way to long, silent pauses that we’re meant to sit in. Then the boom startles us once again like it startles Jessica.
The sound has no discernible pattern or source, but it’s keeping her awake and confounded, so she decides to investigate. She starts with herself, visiting a doctor to see if it’s coming from within or if she could get some sleeping pills to keep her down amid the commotion. But soon, the hunt turns toward less conventional specialists, like a sound engineer who she hopes can recreate the noise she’s hearing for reference and a fish scaler for reasons too spoilery to explain.
However, there’s not much to spoil as far as the plot is concerned, and there’s not much more to the story than what I’ve told you. The lion’s share of Memoria’s 136-minutes is comprised of wide, static, pacifying shots (thanks to brilliant cinematographer and long-time collaborator Sayombhu Mukdeeprom) that prompt you to either take a nap or enter a contemplative inner arena. Movement is scarce and deliberate. Countless shots of Jessica just linger on her in thought, sitting on a bed or breathing in a chair. She seems invariable, but the profound transformation is taking place in the character beneath the surface of the images, and Weerasethakul is measured in how he chooses to communicate that.
We don’t see most of the character work onscreen. We just feel the result. But for all the seeming nothingness that makes up Memoria, if I were to tell you what happens, you’d think I was joking. I’ve loved several films at Cannes this year, but even the ones I’ve cherished most haven’t lodged themselves into my core like Memoria. My initial reaction was subdued, but within a few hours of finishing, it was reverberating in and around me, like the boom. I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it since.
Above all, this might be what Weerasethakul is best known for, what he brings to cinema that no one else does. He creates a sense of internal mystery and a longing for something unseen yet achievable, perhaps a truer self. He’s the guy who brings a threatening dish to the potluck that ends up being everyone’s favorite. But no one can figure out how he made it.
His films hover in your soul and stay there. In the immediate aftermath, they might make you well up inexplicably at random times in the day or fall into a fit of unfounded laughter. They cut deep into you undetected, like a praying mantis, and it’s only a matter of time before you realize how strong the impact has been.
He’s one of few directors we must learn to acclimate to, not the other way around. He’s making new, unrecognizable art, creating fresh, still experiences that might confuse us or make us restless at first. But, if you can unlearn what you think a film should be and re-learn with Weerasethakul what previously unknown ways a film can shape you, Memoria will win you over.
But it’s up to you, and, frankly speaking, it’s a challenge – the kind of challenge that can fine-tune a hundred little knobs in your brain, unbeknownst to you, and spit you out a new person, even if takes you a while to realize it. Memoria will move anyone who gets on its level, but it’s not moving in a melodramatic or even dramatic emotional sense. It’s existentially moving. It requires a different sense of comprehension – one that when unlocked will leave you craving more.