By Jordan Cronk
Published in Cinema Scope #88 (Fall 2021)
“When he came to, the present was almost intolerable in its richness and sharpness, as were his most distant and trivial memories…Now his perception and his memory were infallible.”—Jorge Luis Borges, “Funes the Memorious”
Amongst the research materials, set photographs, email correspondence, and treatment excerpts included in Fireflies Press’ new artist’s bookon the making of Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Memoria is the story of Eduardo, proprietor of the derelict Cinema Roman in Bogotá, Colombia. As the tale goes, Eduardo grew up in the ’50s doing odd jobs for the theatre’s original owner, who, after fleeing to Armenia to escape the era’s political turmoil, was still able to financially support his two sons’ medical studies through the revenue generated by the cinema. The two sons eventually opened Bogotá’s first hospital. Meanwhile, Eduardo and his father continued to operate the theatre until the 1999 earthquake forced its closure. In 2016, the owner gave the cinema to Eduardo and his family, who hope to one day revive it and continue, as the book describes it, this “beautiful story about family bonds and cinema and doctors.” Memoria, which premiered in Competition at this year’s Cannes (where it shared the Jury Prize with Nadav Lapid’s Ahed’s Knee), wasn’t the first film I saw back in a cinema following pandemic closures, but it was the first great one. And while it may not “save” the medium—or whatever ridiculous standard armchair critics continue to hold movies to during these tentatively renascent times—it has, like the story of Eduardo and the Cinema Roman, restored a bit of my faith in its future.
Memoria arrives amidst a flurry of activity for the 51-year-old Thai filmmaker. In addition to the feature and the book, there’s Night Colonies, his contribution to the omnibus project The Year of the Everlasting Storm (which also premiered at Cannes); a solo exhibition of his video and installation work at the IAC Villeurbanne; and a career-spanning retrospective at FIDMarseille, where the director was on hand just days after Cannes to receive the festival’s Grand Prix d’Honneur. Acknowledgements and achievements aside, Apichatpong betrays no signs of complacency as he enters his third decade in the field. Memoria is indeed a change of pace for the filmmaker: an international production spoken largely in Spanish and featuring a cast of professional actors led by Tilda Swinton, it’s less a summation than a step into the unknown. What remains is a set of preoccupations—with dreams, nature, ghosts, and the ineffability of time—and a purity of spirit that reaches far beyond aesthetic signifiers. Seemingly untouched by outside forces, Apichatpong’s work has long proven uniquely suited to absorbing the essence, rather than the style or cynicism, of popular forms of genre cinema. Here, Apichatpong employs a similar approach with his actors, working to harness their individual energies without yielding to their star personas.
Inspired by its maker’s real-life bout with Exploding Head Syndrome (a sleep disorder that triggers imagined sounds in the inflicted’s mind), Memoria stars Swinton as Jessica Holland, an orchidologist in Bogotá suffering from a recurrent thudding noise in her head. Also ailing from a mysterious illness is Jessica’s sister, Karen (Agnes Brekke), who she’s in town to visit. In an early scene at a hospital, Karen tells Jessica about a dream she keeps having about a dying dog, a story that resounds in Jessica’s mind when she later crosses paths with a stray canine. Here, as throughout, sound and image become echoes of one another: Are these impressions of the past or emanations from the future?
Seeking answers for her condition, Jessica consults with a sound engineer named Hernan (Juan Pablo Urrego), whose unsuccessful attempts to recreate the noise only underscore the divide between language and lived experience (and later, when he seems to disappear from the story completely, between memory and reality). Meanwhile, an encounter with an archaeologist played by Jeanne Balibar and a trip to a remote excavation site symbolically connect Jessica’s quest to Colombia’s history of violence and colonialism, which is never far from the surface. (At one point, a backfiring bus causes pedestrians to instinctively scramble for safety.) Embodying a very modern form of existential malaise, Jessica (who suggestively shares a name with the afflicted wife in Jacques Tourneur’s 1943 I Walked with a Zombie) moves stoically, almost wraith-like, across the urban landscape of the film’s first half, as if suspended between multiple states of consciousness. “In here, time stops,” a saleswoman says to Jessica at one point, referring to a glass flower cabinet—an apt metaphor for the film’s slippery sense of temporality.
While Apichatpong has consistently evinced a unique attentiveness to the sonic environment of each of his films, Memoria is the first that can be said to be primarily about sound, to the point of being its animating force. Lying in bed in the opening scene, Jessica is awakened by the noise that will haunt her for the duration of her journey, one which will eventually take her from the hospitals, museums, and institutional spaces of the city to the wilds of the jungle, and in turn from a concrete reality to an in-between space where identities blur and chronologies converge. Here she meets an older man (Elkin Díaz) with the same name as the sound engineer, who speaks of dreams, storytelling, and his inability to forget the past. “I remember everything,” he tells Jessica, who sees in this man a possible key to unlocking the source of her fears and anxieties.
Near the end of the film, in a scene of extraordinary power, the two sit silently across from each other as a slipstream of memories takes shape on the soundtrack and dozens of fleeting narrative threads pass across the stereo field. In this moment, any number of indelible images from Apichatpong’s past work flashed through my mind—the glowing ox spirit in Tropical Malady (2004); the red-eyed monkey ghost from Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010); the neon-lit medical clinic in Cemetery of Splendour (2015)—each tied to a specific time and place, but ageless in their ability to transform one’s view of the world. Memoria takes that idea one step further, beyond earthbound constraints and into a realm far stranger and more surreal.
Cinema Scope: We’re here in Marseille, less than a week after Memoria premiered in Cannes, for a retrospective that has you looking back over your two decades of filmmaking. Since Memoria deals so explicitly with how the past weighs on the present, do you often look back on prior films or consider them in relation to your current projects?
Apichatpong Weerasethakul: I don’t often look back, mainly because I don’t want to get stuck on the same ideas. I’d like to think that everything I’ve done is in the past. But then, of course, every time I make a new movie the old ones somehow come back during the process—I think because I work with the same team and we have the same references. During the making of Memoria, there were times when I would say things to the crew like, “Yeah, like that shot in Cemetery of Splendour;” or with Sayombhu Mukdeeprom, the DP, I’d say, “Like that shot in Blissfully Yours (2002).” That’s an almost 20-year-old reference! Rather than think of it as revisiting the films, I think of it as revisiting the process.
Scope: I know you and Tilda had been trying to find a way to work together for a while, and that Colombia was kind of the key to making it a reality. What drew you to Bogotá, and what about the location made it right for this collaboration?
Apichatpong: When you’re in Bogotá, it feels like it’s breathing: it’s like you’re in the belly of an animal. The weather keeps shifting; the clouds are massive. In one day you can have rain, sunshine, cold—so people are layered with clothes, scarves, and umbrellas. Jessica is like that in the movie. I thought it would be fascinating to try to find a way to embody a form of communication with this environment. So the idea started to emerge as I travelled around the country, witnessing these shifts in climate, while at the same time I was witnessing how the country was moving ahead after the peace talks between President Santos and the people’s army. Ten or 20 years ago Colombia was so violent and dangerous—you couldn’t travel like I was able to when making the movie. I kept imagining what it was like during this time, and I talked to friends about their memories of this period. They told me about living with fear, about people they knew who were murdered. My other focus was talking to doctors about various traumas. The highlight was at a mental hospital in this town called Filandia, in the Quindío department of Colombia. I was introduced to different patients and had a long interview with a kind doctor there. Even though their stories are not in the film, I carried a deep impression of their sorrow and suspended sense of reality into the production.
Scope: As far as getting films funded now, is the presence of known actors a necessity to realize your projects?
Apichatpong: I’m not really sure. This is the first time I’ve worked with professional actors. My new project is in development and I’d like to work on that one with my Thai actors, as well as Tilda. But I honestly don’t think about funding much. I write what I write to make the films that I want to see.
Scope: And this film was written for Tilda, right?
Apichatpong: Right, although we didn’t know exactly what Jessica would be until later. It was about sculpting the character together. But, in the end, I don’t think anyone could replace Tilda. It’s strange, because I wrote it for Tilda, but at that time I didn’t know how she looked—what her hair was like, things like that. I guess I wrote it for the spirit of Tilda. But then once we physically began the process with the costume fitting and hair styling, we slowly discovered the character and Tilda got into the rhythm. It was an amazing process.
Scope: At what point did the narrative coalesce around this mysterious sound that Tilda hears, which, as I understand, is inspired by your experience with Exploding Head Syndrome? Were you always interested in making a film about sound?
Apichatpong: For sure. I’ve always been into sound, though maybe it’s more pronounced in the shorts and installation works. But yes, the idea was there from the beginning: it’s so integrated into the conception, my experience of hearing this impossible noise, and how to translate that noise into sound. The movie shows the process of trying to translate the noise, but it’s still not the same as what I experienced, because it wasn’t exactly a sound—it was something in here, inside my head.
As things went along the sound idea expanded into the entire DNA of the film, into the idea of trying to connect with other people or express something you otherwise can’t. It’s like grief or heartbreak: you don’t know how to tell people that you’re heartbroken, and when you recover you’re like, “Wow, what happened to me?” I was trying to channel that kind of feeling.
Scope: Can you describe what you heard, or felt?
Apichatpong: Have you taken magic mushrooms? When you take them, you see an image, but it’s not an image: it’s an idea of an image. The sound was like that. It’s hard to explain. It’s like when Jessica tries to describe the sound in her head to the sound engineer: it’s like a metal ball underwater. But it’s not painful, it more piques your interest or curiosity. At one point I was able to control it—like, OK, it’s coming, and then…boom! After a few months I even started to see geometric forms: squares, circles—but mostly circles. I wouldn’t say it was a pleasant experience, but you also don’t know how to stop it. Eventually it just disappeared.
Scope: During the course of making the movie?
Apichatpong: Yeah, I think so. The first script was quite visual, with the circles and squares actually written into the treatment. But in the end I cut a lot out, during the shooting and also during the post-production, because I didn’t want to show: I wanted the audience to feel and identify with their own grief. If you use too many visuals or too much sound, it kills the chance for the audience to empathize with the character, or to reflect on their own experiences.
Scope: I couldn’t help but make the connection between the audio we hear in Night Colonies of the Demonstrations for Democracy in Bangkok and the undercurrents of political violence in Memoria, with the backfiring bus being the most obvious metaphor for Colombia’s reckoning with its violent past. Can you talk about approaching Colombia’s issues as an outsider versus your firsthand experiences with Thailand’s political problems?
Apichatpong: Because Thailand is home, there’s a familiarity and inertia in how I relate to violence. There are so many coup d’états that one can feel numb to it all. Colombia is fresh: all the stories were hitting me in a short time. It made me look at Thailand with fresher eyes, and inspired me to connect with the students who demand military and monarchy reforms.
Scope: I learned from the Fireflies book that Tilda’s character was originally named Erika, but that you changed it to Jessica Holland, the name of the Christine Gordon character in I Walked with a Zombie. Can you tell me about the influence of Tourneur on the film and the character?
Apichatpong: The character started as Erika Kramer, after Robert Kramer’s widow. She was a strong woman. But after a while I realized that the character wasn’t as active as Erika: she’s more passive, like a ghost. So I went back in my memory. I looked back at Cemetery of Splendour’s research files, and found that a lot of images reminded me of I Walked with a Zombie, specifically the images of the woman and the nurse. These images were more in line with Jessica Holland.
Visually, we encountered a lot of beautiful architecture and artwork in Bogotá. Most of this art deals with shadows and geometry. For example, the painting by Ever Astudillo that is reproduced in the gallery scene in the movie: I was absorbed in its shadows. Astudillo’s influences are photography and cinema, particularly crime and film noir. In a lot of his work you see figures, mostly from the back, and you don’t see clearly what’s going on in the frame. For me this is similar to Tourneur, this kind of ambiguity, this use of shadows.
Scope: Can you talk about working with a professional actor of Tilda’s stature for the first time? She’s mentioned how she interpreted Jessica as an avatar for you—that you were like a choreographer making a ballet or dance piece on her.
Apichatpong: It takes time. With my non-professional actors, it’s their names, their speed, their stories. Working with them is about remembering and trying to capture certain parts of them that I adore. For Tilda, we had to create Jessica from our mental library of movies, because she’s so well versed in cinema. For me there was I Walked with a Zombie, but I don’t think Tilda and I discussed that movie. We talked more about, like, being underwater—slowing down. Because Tilda works fast.
One movie we talked about before shooting was Peter Ibbetson (1935) by Henry Hathaway. It’s about an architect played by Gary Cooper who’s framed and put in jail, and every night he has a dream of meeting his sweetheart in the park. For us it’s all about ghosts. In what direction is Jessica driven? It’s never about why, only how. “Why” is about the past, “why” is about digging into reason. The movie is about the present. While we were shooting it was about the moment: how she feels, how she walks, how and where to turn. Maybe Tilda’s right that it’s about ballet.
Scope: What about Jeanne Balibar? I imagine you’re fond of her work in film and music. What does she symbolize to you?
Apichatpong: She’s singular. I like her voice, her movement, her wittiness.
Scope: Can you tell me a little about the visual look of the film? This is the first time Sayombhu Mukdeeprom has been your DP since Uncle Boonmee. Did you two conceptualize the film differently than your past work?
Apichatpong: With Blissfully Yours there were a lot of references to Hitchcock, even though it probably doesn’t look like it; and also Apocalypse Now (1979), which I referenced quite a bit more in Boonmee. At that time it was those films that influenced me, as well as the Thai TV dramas that we shot on 16mm in the ’90s.
Nowadays we don’t talk about references at all. It’s like we already know. When you look at the weather in Colombia, it’s all already there. Amazingly, we didn’t do as extensive a colour correction as on the prior films. What he captured on film was great—it was already there.
Scope: With the exception of parts of Syndromes and a Century (2006), this is also really the first time you’ve shot a lot in urban and institutional spaces.
Apichatpong: It’s another kind of jungle. I love the jungle because it’s about playing with light, with the sun’s position, which is always changing. In Bogotá it was always like that. Even though it’s a city, we were always wondering when the rain was going to come. Sayombhu had been shooting with Luca Guadagnino—he shot Suspiria (2018) and Call Me By Your Name (2017)—so when he came back for Memoria he didn’t really talk; there was already something in him. It’s almost like kung fu. In Thailand we have these disciples who go to the mountains to master their craft: that’s sort of what he did, and he came back a master. It was like, “Oh, now you’re enlightened!” I was amazed. He was very mature. I didn’t have to say much. It was almost like he knew what I wanted.
Scope: One of the pieces in your Villeurbanne exhibition is an extended shot of Tilda lying in bed, which I’ve heard was included in early cuts of Memoria. How did you arrive at the final shape of the film?
Apichatpong: It was a long process. I think because I always look at each film as its own being, my editor Lee Chatametikool and I just slowly build each one and listen to its heartbeat as it grows. This film was really temperamental. It gave us hell. It was hard to find what it wanted. When we put something in at, say, the one-hour mark, it shifted the whole film. Then we realized it’s really about Jessica—the film itself is like a being of Jessica. It’s like a baby Jessica. So we knew we couldn’t introduce much more. With Jeanne Balibar’s character, for example, we had scenes of her dreams. There were also other characters and…let’s just say other adventures that Jessica didn’t need. So we essentially extended certain shots and cut out scenes—sometimes very beautiful scenes—and just tried to feel what each particular moment needed.
Scope: There’s a hint of magical realism to the film, which of course makes the Colombian setting that much more suggestive. Were you thinking of Gabriel García Márquez, or Colombia’s tradition of magical realism, when writing the film or when choosing the location?
Apichatpong: I like Márquez and Juan Rulfo, but I never associated Memoria with magical realism. But maybe unconsciously…
Scope: Can you discuss the archaeological aspects of the film? Of course Jeanne’s character is an archaeologist, but there seems to be a distinct interest on your part to capture this landscape as it changes—to say nothing of the political aspects of the process. It made me think a bit about the ancient site that the clinic is built on in Cemetery of Splendour.
Apichatpong: The movie is like a body, or like a world that holds these characters who are a bit lost but come together and communicate with their surroundings. It was important to make clear that everything in the end is connected in this body. When I had Exploding Head Syndrome, I was so curious to look at it physically—meaning that I really wanted to pull something out of my head. I was thinking of trepanning, which is when you drill a hole in someone’s head to release demons. It’s something that’s been practiced from ancient civilizations up until today in modern hospitals when there’s head trauma and you need to release pressure. But I can imagine in the past there was this need to just get these things out, just like I wanted to do with this ball of sound in my head. I wanted Jessica to feel that, to have this unexplainable attraction to this circular shape, to this hole that she sees in the skeleton’s head—for her to think that maybe it’s her in past incarnations. Same with the tunnel in the mountain: maybe a hole was bored into it for her to discover something inside?
Scope: Can you talk about working with your sound designer, Akritchalerm Kalayanamitr, particularly as it pertains to the telepathy-like scene at the end of the film? How was that scene conceived as compared to what we hear in the film? There’s so much audio information presented in that sequence, it seems like it must have been a long process of accumulation and, possibly, reduction. How did you find the right balance?
Apichatpong: We worked for months on that scene. Often we thought we had gotten it, but when we watched the film from the beginning, it didn’t work. I wanted it to be silent at one point. Then I wrote a new script just for that one scene during post-production. We filmed the actors from a long distance. I realized I was creating Hernan’s and Jessica’s backgrounds for myself, though these weren’t things I was thinking about while we were shooting. Same with my other films: I’m never interested in the characters’ backgrounds. That scene turned out to be a little audio-movie for me, with Jessica—and by extension, Tilda—on the beach with her kids and dogs, an incoming storm, and Hernan on a hill with his girlfriend. All these things are mashed up.
Scope: There’s been intimations of science fiction in your prior films, but nothing as explicit as in Memoria. I’m curious about this sci-fi dimension. Are nature and science inextricably linked for you?
Apichatpong: Definitely. I think that science and fiction and magic and religion are all related, because these are things that can be transformed. There might be something that you think is magic, but then one day you discover that it’s truth because it can now be explained by science. This ability to produce shifts in our points of view is fascinating to me. But it’s also part of our evolution to know ourselves. I think when you look back to when man was scared of thunder or things we can’t explain, we’ve always tried to justify these things by putting reason behind them. It’s the same way we created God and other fictions. I think that’s evolution. And I think this movie is reflecting that fear and uncertainty: Jessica’s searching for peace from that fear. I’m not sure if it comes through, but that’s what I was trying to convey, that we are all one. It sounds cheesy, but it’s true for me that everything—you, me, this glass of water—is connected. It’s all made from the same thing. We’re in this body at this moment, but in the next we’ll be transformed.