Clichéd orientalist tropes of reincarnations, perceived memories of past actions and guilts exotically revisited and generously hallucinated about, as one lay seriously ill, awaiting their end, was the backbone of Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s 2010 feature Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives. It predictably garnered huge acclaim in the N American and W European film festivals and markets that readily embrace depictions of such deliberately ambiguous themes likening them to authentic philosophical ruminations about life, how collective and personal histories implicate one’s present, even as they are highly unstable and nostalgic. A decade later, same patterns have emerged in the reception of Weerasethakul’s latest film Memoria. This perhaps calls for a reassessment.
Memoria has its protagonist a white woman Jessica (Tilda Swinton), living (since long or not, isn’t clear), in Medellin, Colombia travelling to Bogota visiting her sister (is she adopted?) who is a native. For the first time, Weerasethakul moves out of Thailand, travelling all the way to South America. At first thought this seems unusual, but it becomes evident the lush green Colombian forests offer similar inspiration for his contemplations, whatever they are, as the greens back home in Thailand do.
If Uncle Boonmee was suffering from an illness that had no cure, Jessica suffers from severe anxieties and Weerasethakul creates a similar escapist world for her where he settles in with his disingenuous notions of how meaningful connections are forged between individuals from different cultures and histories via their past and present traumas. He attempts, randomly, to extrapolate these to the sufferings and violences of the country itself, reimagining its identity. Memoria becomes an exposé of how Weerasethakul’s themes are unable to make clear sense.
A doctor at the hospital and the sister, an archaeologist, work with dead bodies. Discerning, they are scientific, factual in their processes, learning and documenting experiences and histories of people and places previously unknown. Jessica’s brief interactions with them are always off the mark and they simply politely move on. Jessica’s unstable, fantastical mind continually collides with the realities around her.
Jessica lives in her head. A huge amount of screen-time is devoted for her to play out her unsound thoughts with characters who simply disappear or who have completely isolated themselves from society and from healthy living and like her, sustain themselves in imaginary worlds of their own. Pebbles are ascribed experiences of random people and sounds of animals in the forests create another story for both Jessica and the isolated middle-aged man named Hernan to devour and further revel in their deranged minds. Expectedly, alcohol and sedative medications are life affirming for them. Drinking with Hernan, Jessica continues to rant. A mentally ill person unravelling and nothing more. The stories they share are unmoored and possess no semblance of consistency.
But Weerasethakul posits Jessica’s and all her friends’ episodes central to his narrative. He intends Jessica’s character as the only valid stimulus (also unmissable is the use of the clichéd trope of a white person in an exotic land, on a (faux) existential quest) for his readings but she contradictorily is the hindrance to these necessary intellectual discussions.
Visually, Weerasethakul’s depictions on philosophising and meditating about life relies on creating very dramatic episodes but deceptively in his trademark gentle tone. There is a sly move to frame his primary characters from whom he wants to glean meanings, at a distance, camera unmoving as they, in solitary, or with their companions, huddle and speak, randomly, in slow sentences, in low voices. It very well and almost always deters the viewer from any kind of logical questioning, as if what is visually unfolding on screen is what matters most, is most significant and sacred. This, even as nothing makes enough sense to even sit through a scene. For Weerasethakul, Jessica’s experiences are, like Uncle Boonmee’s, where well-grounded metaphysical ideas are supposed to be created and brought to life. But they essentially amount to nothing much and are expressions of deeply troubled minds.
Enlightening examinations about life base themselves in studies of individual and systemic frameworks of regular working and living. Unfortunately, in Memoria, where answers for these pursuits may be, are relegated to background noise. These vital revelations find their way to us through regular professions as the doctor’s, the archaeologist sister’s and the other researchers’ (whose commentaries are only heard as background sounds as they go about doing what they do), attest. In their physical, evidence based work where discoveries of new pasts lead to renewed understandings of individual and collective lives, that were and that are. Previously unknown histories are unearthed time and again, to reshape and rewrite our present times, throwing light on the fact that comprehension of life itself is an ongoing process of unlearning and learning. People leading seemingly mundane professional and personal lives with responsibility, and good health, they contribute no dramatic indulgences, simply moving on with a knowing, in their routine everyday lives. But all of them, for Weerasethakul, are simply foils to draw focus to Jessica’s shenanigans.
A great disservice is done, then, when the filmmaker focuses on severe deliriums disconnected with realities and the politics of mundane living to speciously postulate about existentiality of life. Nevertheless, where actual worth is, becomes glaringly obvious. Memoria is an exhausting, factitious ride. Its end unexpectedly underlines Weerasethakul’s struggle for thematic coherence and relevance. As the affected juvenile science fiction finale takes off, literally disappearing to the blue skies, so does Jessica’s world that Weerasethakul has tried to invest the viewer in. He decimates his own narrative making it easier for Memoria to rightly fade quicker from one’s memory.
Arthi Vasudevan completed her MA in Global Cinemas and the Transcultural at SOAS (School of Oriental and African Studies), London. Her professional focus is on research and study of Asian cinemas. She previously worked for about a year in film festival programming and in film archiving. At present, she is working on doctoral research applications.
Before entering the world of films professionally, she did belong to the corporate world. Having completed her BA in Engineering and later obtaining an MBA degree, she was a software programmer and then a financial research analyst for a few years.