A modern-day allegory with universal resonance told in a filmmaking style that absolutely won’t be for everyone, Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s spellbinding Memoria moves in the subtlest increments. Shots linger. And linger. And then linger some more. A fixed camera settles on moments of total stillness, even amid the hubbub of urban life. If blockbuster savant Michael Bay used to boast of ‘fucking the frame’ with his hyper-adrenalised editing style, the Thai auteur is more about lulling it to sleep and seeing what happens when it dreams.
This, of course, is the Uncle Boonmee director’s signature style, and as long-time acolytes will testify, you need to go all in with it or the journey quickly becomes a drag. But the rewards for meditating along with Memoria are pretty profound: there are truths and mysteries woven into its slow-motion travelogue to bath in. And emerging from its two-and-a-bit-hour rumination on memory and the passing of time, you’ll never feel less like checking your phone – a sensation that may be worth the admission alone.
Trying to decipher its cosmic mysteries is Tilda Swinton’s expat Brit in Colombia, Jessica Holland. Living in Medellín where she runs a business selling flowers, she travels to Bogota to visit her sister, Karen (Agnes Brekke), who is in hospital suffering an undiagnosed illness. But she arrives with a strange ailment of her own: she’s being tormented by a loud booming noise that’s audible only to her.
Are the two sisters’ ailments somehow connected? Do they have anything to do with rumours of a tribal curse that may have been stirred up by a road being built through an old burial ground in the jungle?
Weerasethakul, of course, isn’t here to put a philosophical spin on Poltergeist, even if for a time the ex-machina threat of that sudden shocking boom (‘a concrete ball falling into a metal bowl surrounded by water,’ is how Karen puts it) hangs over things like something out of an existential horror film.
But from there, Memoria’s languourous journey leads to the most unexpected destination, as Karen’s journey takes her first to student sound engineer Hernán (Juan Pablo Urrego), in hope of deciphering the mysteries of this sound, and eventually into the Colombian hills where she meets a man who has never left his village. He’s also called Hernán. Are they somehow connected?
In his first filmmaking foray outside Thailand, Weerasethakul assembles Memoria’s puzzles from the biggest pieces: minutes-long shots that invite you to dissolve into them (the Thai filmmaker does not do insert shots), tuning into its meditative frequencies as it gently explores how the human experience echoes through time. At different moments, it made me think of everything from Close Encounters of the Third Kind to Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life – other films with similar preoccupations, albeit wildly different filmmaking grammar.
There’s nothing quite like Memoria, though, especially in a climatic shot that falls firmly in the am-I-actually-hallucinating bracket of final act twists. It’s an exercise in mindfulness that asks you to give yourself over to it lock, stock and barrel. If you’re willing to do that, you can cancel that meditation course.
In UK cinemas Jan 14, 2022.