Memoria (dir. Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2021)

Jessica (Tilda Swinton) and the archaeologist (Jeanne Balibar)

In Cemetery of Splendor, characters dispense zen-like nuggets of wisdom in a lethargic state. Paced like a Buddhist meditation, the plot marches to a slow and subtle but abundant poetic song under the branches of psychotropic jungles, crossed by bizarre animals, tropical diseases, erotic projections, and otherworldly light. Undoubtedly less bewitching than the previous opuses of the brilliant filmmaker, Cemetery presents spirits of quarrelsome kings as allegorical figures for a country which has been living the aftereffects of coup d’etat for half a century, and which stands today still under the control of a government legitimized by force of arms.
As usual, the story is tenuous, but the threads that escape from our immediate comprehension are rich. Consider a school transformed into a field hospital. Consider a group of soldiers suffering from a mysterious sleeping disease interrupted by spontaneous awakenings. Consider a slightly crippled, elderly lady watching over them and a young medium who connects the world of dreams of these recumbent figures to the world of the living. It soon emerges that the hospital is built on an ancient cemetery, where the spirits of royals and courtiers still roam and continue their war by possessing the soldiers in their dreams.

Like how the phosphorescent light bathes the sleepers in the night as a form of therapy, Apichatpong Weerasethakul seems to be casting a soft light over his country. We can interpret the damaged leg of the film’s heroine—portrayed by a regular Apichatpong actor Jenjira Pongpas Widner – as a kind of carnal, painful and stitched up map of Thailand in search of an urgent repair.

It’s hard to compare Memoria (2022) to Cemetery of Splendor (2015) or to even earlier works Tropical Malady (2004), Uncle Boonmee, the one who remembers his past lives, which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 2010. In all these films, the world is portrayed as a kind of ark that is cavernous and generous enough to accommodate both the worlds of the living and the dead, of humans and animals, of ghosts and forests, probing the present and the past of our sorrows. Characters spin on the wave of memories imbued with mystery. Akin to being reincarnated, Jenjira Pongpas Widener becomes Tilda Swinton, on whose striking screen presence the entire scenario revolves. Tilda Swinton as Jessica Holland is enduring a chronic ailment known as “exploding head syndrome”. 

Like a theater of shadows, Memoria opens in the silent darkness of a room, which is suddenly struck by a deaf and deep detonation. Little by little in the dark, the silhouette of Jessica emerges, suddenly awakened. Where did this “bang” come from that pulled her out of bed? Was she dreaming, as suggested by the image of a row of cars parked in a parking lot, which suddenly begin to honk, as if moved by an invisible force? This change of scenery in Colombia gives the director a certain distance to reinvent his language. Something seems out of place—and perhaps this is the intended effect—in the Colombia of Memoria, and in his collaboration with international actors (the British Tilda Swinton, the French Jeanne Balibar and the Mexican Daniel Gimenez Cacho). Far from narrowing the director’s sensory and shamanic universe, this change of scenery gives him a certain distance to reinvent his language. The film is inevitably reinvented as well, employing a broad spectrum of cinematic traditions that bring together genre and experimental films, fine art sound installation and the special effects of blockbusters that nourished Apichatpong’s childish imagination. One can sense an echo of magic realism, in the form of a strange shuttle, in a hurry to leave the Earth.