The Sound of Silence
By Demi Kampakis

NYFF 2021:
Memoria
Dir. Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Colombia/Thailand/UK, NEON

A woman is suddenly and violently jolted from her slumber by a thunderous bang in the middle of the night. Getting out of bed, she somnambulates around in search of its source, peering out the window in a disoriented daze. The woman’s name is Jessica, and the setting is Colombia, where Jessica (a muted and encumbered Tilda Swinton, also executive producer) has taken up temporary residence after visiting her anthropologist sister, who’s been hospitalized in Bogotá with a mysterious condition.

Bewildered and unsettled the following day, Jessica, a Scottish orchid botanist with a perpetual gaunt face and haunted gait, goes to see a sound engineer, Hernan, in his studio at the National University of Colombia. She hopes Hernan will help her recreate and identify the sound that’s plaguing her. The mysterious origins of this sonic boom, and Jessica’s quest to pinpoint it, become an existential driving force for her, as well as the narrative and philosophical fulcrum of Thai auteur and 2010 Palme d’Or winner Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s latest film Memoria—a challenging and enigmatic work of uncanny contemplative beauty that rewards patience, focus and total acquiescence. Though “narrative” should be applied loosely here, for in classic Apichatpong fashion, Memoria is more ambient tone poem than conventional story-driven cinema.

“It sounds like a large rock that’s dropped into a well surrounded by seawater,” she explains to Hernan, describing the sound as “earthly” and “metallic” in its deep resonant rumbling. Apart from some birds and a terrified passerby she encounters on the street, it seems only Jessica can hear it. Indeed, in a later sequence, while conversing with her sister and brother-in-law over dinner, Jessica is the only person at the restaurant who registers any response when the strange thuds suddenly pierce the scene in amplifying succession. Her thoroughly unnerved expression recalls an earlier moment when, after hearing Hernan’s computer-generated facsimile of the sound, Jessica briefly slips into a disquieting trance. Here, too, her face suggests the look of someone who’s just seen—or more precisely, heard—a ghost, and it’s startling and tense to behold.

As Jessica’s grasp of reality grows more precarious, so too is she destabilized by her unreliable memories, as when she misremembers the death of an acquaintance who, her sister and brother-in-law remind her, is in fact alive. But is she mistaken, or are they? This ambiguity is a core part of the director’s cinematic sensibilities, and here, it communicates the film’s thematic fascination with subjective human perception and the fallibility of memory. Yet this isn’t the only betrayal of the mind Jessica experiences. Halfway through the film, Hernan vanishes entirely from the story—at the university, no one seems to recognize anyone fitting his description. Later however, she meets up with another Hernan, a middle-aged farmer burdened by the weight of the past and present, who spends his days waiting for his turn to shuffle off this mortal coil. Is their shared moniker a coincidence, reincarnation, or a deliberate interchangeability meant to illustrate Apichatpong’s understanding of our collective experiences?

Jessica meets this new Hernan in the film’s third act, at which point she and Memoria have journeyed from the city streets of Medellín and Bogotá to the tranquil mountainous jungles of the Amazon. It’s a verdant, lush landscape that provides a visually arresting backdrop to the film’s increasingly metaphysical concerns. In a nearly 20-minute single-take shot in static wide frame, Jessica and this new Hernan wax on the noisy distractions of modern life, and their exchange unfolds with the limbic, subliminal, and cryptic rhythms of dream logic. Hernan tells Jessica that he can remember everything that’s ever happened on any given day, even absorbing other people’s memories through common objects like stones, as though he were those folks in past lives and the objects are conduits used to transmit this information across time and space. Consequently, he avoids engaging with anything—people, technology, urban landscapes—that might further burden him with stories of human suffering, conflict, and cruelty. He’s perfectly content amongst the foliage and wildlife and tells Jessica that his otherworldly abilities prevent him from dreaming—as though a dissociated, depersonalized ego were the price to pay for the acutely empathetic clairvoyance required for one to internalize the breadth of human interconnection.

Part of this connection is defined by the political, cultural, and generational traumas that stain humanity’s history, another theme Apichatpong solemnly and soberly revisits throughout his work (though Memoria marks the first film to explore this outside the lens of his native Thailand). And as in Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives and Cemetery of Splendour, he often materializes these traumas in the form of phantoms that hover in the margins of his protagonists’ imaginations, visiting and sometimes haunting them in the same way the present is always shaped by the ghosts of the pasts.

While Memoria may frustrate many, for those on Apichatpong’s wavelength it will transfix and burrow under the skin—not unlike the way one feels a deep bass sound in their gut. So too will this sensitive and sensorial film pierce something on a molecular level, with a subconscious honesty, grace, lyricism and intimacy that quietly linger.

The middle-aged Hernan and the intrusive sound (a vague nod to the director’s own temporary experience with “exploding head syndrome”) become a tangible extension of these ghosts—an embodied audiovisual reminder of our shared struggles, superstitions, history, and existential destiny, but also of the ways in which our individual subjective perceptions leave us fundamentally isolated. These ideas culminate in a hypnotic moment that doubles as an exercise in sensory manipulation. Lying down on the grass next to Jessica in an effort to dream, Hernan ostensibly falls asleep—though we notice that his eyes are open, and he’s stopped breathing. We’re witnessing not so much a nap, but the postmortem moment when one’s soul leaves their body. Except for the ambient jungle sounds, there is complete silence as Apichatpong holds the frame for an extended period, letting the serenity and suspended tension fully breathe with a fixed and unflinching gaze. The shot forces us to recalibrate our senses, demanding we finely heighten our neural and tactile engagement with the tableau and Mother Nature at large and surrender to the moment’s quiet beauty. In this way, the scene inhabits and induces a meditative state that marries Apichatpong’s and Memoria’s preoccupations with the elasticity of time and memory; the ways memory, emotion, consciousness, and dreams overlap and bleed; the ephemeral nature of existence; our relationship to nature, each other, and the past; the soulful insights gained through vulnerability, curious spontaneity, and attunement to the present; how sound can bridge the gap between the material and spiritual worlds while also highlighting the shortcomings of language; and the fragile, razor-thin boundary between life and death.