Memoria: A sonic mystery that will resonate deeply

Tilda Swinton hears a strange sound in Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s hypnotic film

Tilda Swinton in Memoria

Film Title: Memoria

Director: Apichatpong Weerasethakul

Starring: Tilda Swinton, Juan Pablo Urrego, Jeanne Balibar, Daniel Giménez Cacho, Elkin Díaz, Agnes Brekke.

Genre: Sci-Fi

Running Time: 136 min

Fri, Jan 14, 2022, 05:00


Sound is created when a vibration resonates in an ear, a fact that gives rise to the creaky conundrum: If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around, does it make a sound? That ancient enquiry makes for a neat encapsulation of the works of Thai auteur Apichatpong Weerasethakul. It is for the viewer of the director’s Palme d’Or winner Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives to forge pathways between the seduction of a princess by a talking fish, the killing of moths and that red-eyed Chewbacca thingy.

The idea of sound as a sensation created by the mind forms the spine of this intriguing reverie and was inspired by Weerasethakul’s own experiences with exploding head syndrome, a strange malady that isn’t quite as Cronenbergian as it sounds. 

Memoria begins with an avant-garde jump scare, as British botanist Jessica (Tilda Swinton) is jolted out of bed by a mysterious boom. The noise is enough to set car alarms ringing, yet no one seems to hear it save for Jessica, who is visited again and again by the aural disturbance. 

An angular gumshoe adventure ensues, as Jessica seeks to recreate the sound with the assistance of one of her husband’s former students, Hernan (Juan Pablo Urrego), who works in a recording studio. “It’s like a ball of concrete hitting a metal wall surrounded by seawater,” she explains. Following a session that recalls the meticulousness of the late Scott Walker, Hernan, who (tellingly) plays with a group called Depth of Delusion, incorporates the reconstructed sound into a composition.   

Mysteries abound in this eighth feature (and fifth major prizewinner at Cannes) by Weerasethakul. Jessica has come to Colombia to visit her sister Karen (Agnes Brekke), who’s in a Bogotá hospital suffering from an unexplained respiratory ailment and memory loss. Karen doesn’t remember Jessica’s visits but she’s disturbed by recollections of a stray dog. More troublingly, when Jessica returns to the recording studio, the technicians have never heard of Hernan. Later, by way of an excavation, human remains and fungi, Jessica happens upon an older version of Hernan.   

Sound designer Akritchalerm Kalayanamitr’s compositions are as dramatically impactful as Tilda Swinton’s performance is delicately minimalist. Her carefully calibrated movements sit beautifully within the director’s enigmatic images and hypnotic pacing. Those unmoved by the same filmmaker’s Tropical Malady and Cemetery of Splendour may be left scratching their heads, but they will, at least, finally learn the source of the enigmatic disturbance.

Fans, meanwhile, will love the thematic slant rhymes and psychological shifts as much as the surprising solution.