Memoria (2021) ☆☆☆1/2(3.5/4): Searching for one particular sound

To be frank with you, it took some time for me to get accustomed to the works of Apichatpong Weerasethakul, a Thai filmmaker who has been more notable to me and many other moviegoers since he won the Palme d’Or award at the Cannes Film Festival for “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives” (2010). I merely admired that rather baffling film with some reservation, but I still remember many of its interesting moments, and I guess maybe I should revisit it someday. In case of “Cemetery of Splendor” (2015), it also baffled me at first when I belatedly watched it a few years ago, but then it turned out to be a more engaging experience than expected.

Weerasethakul’s latest film “Memoria”, which won the Grand Jury award when it was shown at the Cannes film festival in last year and then was selected as Colombia’s entry to Best International Film Oscar, is as slow and ambiguous as you can expect from him, and it will certainly requires some patience from you, but, in my trivial opinion, it is an experience you will not forget easily. Although I do not think I totally understand what it is exactly about, I appreciate a lot how it is about from the beginning to the end, and I am already ready for the second viewing for savoring its subtle mood and details more.

The free-flowing narrative of the film mainly revolves around Jessica Holland (Tilda Swinton), a Scottish woman who lives in Medellín, Colombia while running a modest local gardening business there. She comes to Bogotá as her sister, who lives there along with her Colombian husband and their little kid, is in a hospital for some illness, and we get a plain but meditative moment of sisterhood as the camera serenely looks at their little wordless private moment in the hospital for a while.

We also see Jessica trying to get to the bottom of one small but enigmatic matter with which she has been increasingly obsessed. As shown from the opening scene, she happened to hear a strange sound at one night, and she subsequently gets some help from a young sound expert introduced to her via her sister’s husband. As they try to find that mysterious sound in that expert’s workplace, the camera simply observes them, and we become more fascinated as that expert’s ongoing process gradually gets closer to what Jessica heard at that night.

Once they find a certain sound sample which almost matches to her description, that sound sample is skillfully manipulated in one way or another for making it closer to that sound, and that makes us more aware of the thoughtful sound design of the film, which naturally becomes one of the key factors in its leisurely narrative development. There are several seemingly mundane scenes in the film, and they look rather inconsequential at first, but then they will draw the attention of your ears bit by bit, and that is one of the main reasons why you should experience it a big screening room equipped with a fairly good sound system.

Around the middle point of the film, the situation becomes a bit more baffling for Jessica. When she goes to that sound expert’s workplace for getting more professional help, that sound expert is gone for no apparent reason, and she is baffled to see that nobody knows or remembers that sound expert at all. After it becomes apparent to her that only she can hear that mysterious sound, she visits a doctor during her visit to some rural site, and she gets some pills from the doctor, but that does not look like a good option as she listens to the doctor’s sincere advice involved with the possible side effects of those pills.

During the last act of the film, Jessica comes across a guy going through his daily work in his remote place, and the mood becomes more pensive as the camera steadily watches their tentative interactions from the distance. It may be just a sheer coincidence, but it turns out that there is a little common thing between this guy and that sound expert, and Jessica eventually goes to his little residence along with him. I do not dare to go into details on what happens next between them, but I can tell you instead that you will be more attentive to the soundtrack if you have already been engaged enough in its mood and details. What is eventually revealed at the end of Jessica’s journey will catch you off guard, and some of you may find it too off-the-wall, but, at least, that somehow makes sense with what has been organically developed during the rest of the movie.

As the center of the film, Tilda Swinton, who has diligently and impressively worked in numerous various films for more than 30 years, is dependable as usual. While effortlessly tuning her acting to the overall low-key tone of the film, she dutifully carries the film with subtle human touches, and her unadorned lead performance is supported well by several substantial main cast members including Jeanne Balibar, Juan Pablo Urrego, Daniel Giménez Cacho, Agnes Brekke, and Elkin Díaz, who holds his own place well beside Swinton during their two long but compelling scenes later in the film.

In conclusion, “Memoria”, which is incidentally Weerasethakul’s first foreign language film, is a challenging work to say the least, but it will engage you a lot once if you accept his distinctive cinematic mood and style. Yes, this is surely not something you can casually watch on Sunday afternoon, but I assure you that its mood and images will linger on your mind for a long time once it is over, and you will probably find yourself willing to listen more during its end credits.

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