Sound Obsession: Sharing Breath with Apichatpong

Tilda Swinton as Jessica in Memoria.
Tilda Swinton as Jessica in Memoria.

As his Tilda Swinton-starring film Memoria begins its infinite, one-cinema-at-a-time U.S. tour,  Apichatpong Weerasethakul wants us to stop obsessing about ourselves.

Apichatpong Weerasethakul doesn’t mind if you fall asleep during his films, but you’d certainly be missing an indescribably unique experience if you did. The Palme d’Or-winning director of films including Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, Tropical Malady and Cemetery of Splendor creates cinematic symphonies, utilizing image and sound to lull his audience into a place between dream and reality, invading the subconscious and nesting inside that space.

This ability is used to typically serene and untypically disturbing effect in his latest, Memoria, which follows a Scottish woman named Jessica (Tilda Swinton) living in Colombia, who suddenly begins to suffer from a pervasive syndrome in which she at random will hear a loud banging sound. The origin of the sound is unknown, the source of it nowhere to be found, and no one else can hear it but Jessica and the audience. It’s the first step that Weerasethakul takes to enveloping us within his main character’s headspace.

Memoria review by Joshua: “Auntie Tilda Who Can Recall Her Past Memories.”
Memoria review by Joshua: “Auntie Tilda Who Can Recall Her Past Memories.”

Shooting outside of Thailand for the first time in his career, Weerasethakul was as much a stranger in a strange land in Colombia as Jessica is, helping to facilitate our connection with the character’s alienation from the world around her. Over the course of the film, Jessica finds connection with two men, both named Hernán. One, a sound engineer (Juan Pablo Urrego), helps her nail down the specific sound that has been plaguing her. It is a stunning scene that gives a whole new appreciation to the work of sound teams on films who are tasked with capturing a filmmaker’s vision. The other Hernán, an older fish-scaler (Elkin Diaz), opens up Jessica and the audience’s understanding of the world in multifaceted ways.

Memoria premiered at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival to much praise, including a Jury Prize at the festival and love from Letterboxd members like Douglas, who highlighted the way in which the film “wraps itself around you slowly until you meet the pay-off, which is so moving”. Other responses haven’t been quite as articulate, such as this, from David Sims: “ahahahahhahahah​AHAHA​HAHA​HAHAHA YESSSSSSSS AHHHHHH YESSSSSS!!!!!”

The unusual experience of witnessing Memoria—as impossible to describe as it is to forget—is one that the filmmaker hopes people will seek in cinemas. To that end, distributor NEON announced in October that the film will never be available to watch on physical media or any streaming service. Instead, it will only ever play in one theater at a time, a release that will see Memoria “moving from city to city, theater to theater, week by week, playing in front of only one solitary audience at any given time”.

This never-ending moving-image event began on Boxing Day with a one-week run at IFC Center in New York ahead of which, Weerasethakul sat down with Letterboxd’s senior editor Mitchell Beaupre for a chat about this one-of-a-kind project.

Memoria review by Cressa Maeve Beer: “Tilda collects different art-house directors like Pokémon.”
Memoria review by Cressa Maeve Beer: “Tilda collects different art-house directors like Pokémon.”

Memoria is your first movie to be filmed outside of Thailand. What was it that drew you to Colombia?
Apichatpong Weerasethakul: I had always wanted to make a film in Latin America since I went to visit the Amazon—the real jungle. I think of my travel in 2017 in Colombia, and different cities, where I was drifting, listening, looking. The political situation here [in Thailand] was making it harder and harder to make a film as well, plus I had this need to make a film with Tilda. We had been talking about it for too long. Everything came together in the middle, really.

You and Tilda have both talked about the years and years of wanting to work together. Now that you had the chance to finally do it, what was that collaborative process like? What was unique about working with Tilda compared to anybody else you have made movies with?
When I was working in Thailand, I was always working with the same group of people and actors, to the point where I was inspired to make the next film and the next after that from the experience of shooting with these same people—chatting with them, getting to know them, and following the trajectory of their lives. With Tilda it was different because we sculpted this character, Jessica, together in a strange, foreign land. It was like a clean slate we were operating with—the kind of state we have when we were young, just not knowing and having to navigate this place to find out about this character together. It’s a really valuable experience.

There’s an interesting symbiosis there, with you as a director filming somewhere you’ve never shot before, and Jessica the character also being somewhere unfamiliar to her. Did you find that helped you develop the character, as you and Tilda were both having that similar experience of outside observers coming into the country?
I think so, yeah. At a certain point, it’s not about story anymore. In fact, in the editing room I cut out a lot of the story in order to better share with the audience this sense of being—just being there, absorbing and immersing yourself as the character is slowly working out what’s bugging her with this sound. The sound is already enough of a story. I think we took that time to build the importance of becoming absorbed in this particular location.

Memoria review by NFP1138: “City by City, Week by Week, Audience by Audience. Watch it. Listen to it.”
Memoria review by NFP1138: “City by City, Week by Week, Audience by Audience. Watch it. Listen to it.”

With the way the film is shot, we’re often seeing Jessica from a distance, where we can really observe how she’s interacting with the space around her. What was important about presenting her in this way?
That was really important for this film, especially because I didn’t know much about Colombia. I think it’s important to keep an open frame, so that you realize the richness of the place. Beside Jessica, you have different lives, different architecture, and everything has its own memory. It all becomes very together with her, allowing you to absorb that this is not only about her. When you’re in a foreign land the information becomes more weighted because you don’t have a preconception of what anything means, like even what that specific color means for that particular place. Your mind is very acute to the senses.

That idea of becoming absorbed in the scene goes along with your use of long takes, which is something featured often across your work. There’s not a lot of cutting; you really let us sit with the scene and have it envelop us. How does that play into the experience you’d like to bring to the viewer in Memoria?
I think at one point you become Jessica. She hears this sound, and you also hear the sound, but other people on the screen don’t. You’re complicit with her. When she listens, she goes to a different space, and you’re really aware of the sound. You anticipate this moment. The long take is a big key for that.

Sound has often played a crucial role in your films, but Memoria elevates that focus to a new level. Not just in the sound Jessica is hearing, but really in the entire soundscape of the environment in all of the scenes. What was crucial about the sound design in this specific film for you?
Besides the bang, it was important to have some layers of reality mixed with psychological sound. Having those rumbles, or other noises, mixed in is important. It’s all about you being Jessica, that you have that awareness. If Jessica walked into my previous films, for example, you would still hear those layers of sound because you’re really listening with her.

Memoria review by Flynn: “It reminds me how artists and creators are often unaware of the impact and beauty their art has on others.”
Memoria review by Flynn: “It reminds me how artists and creators are often unaware of the impact and beauty their art has on others.”

You’ve famously described how you’d like to make films that people can fall asleep to, which is such an interesting idea because your films can be so soothing, and also inhabit this place between dream and reality. Does it excite you as a filmmaker to create work that can go deeper than consciousness?
I think it’s about creating this reality, or hyper-reality, that works for some people in different ways. You are in a space, and you don’t have music, and you don’t have anything to hold onto narrative-wise. It’s like you are free. Some people might feel lost, questioning what they should do, but some people might tune in deeply and find they have a lot of things to do. Some people will think that it’s so rich and they need to be awake, or some people can think there’s nothing there and they need to sleep now. It can be a very different reaction for each viewer. By designing this reality it allows people to react in different ways. That’s all part of it, and I say, okay, you can sleep or you can be very attentive. It’s up to you.

We are part of the whole waves. We have our own ancestors, grandfathers, grandmothers in us. We are very connected. We think people are strangers, but maybe they’re not. We share something. We breathe the same air.

—⁠Apichatpong Weerasethakul

I remember being blown away when I was first introduced to your work because it really changed my perception of what I thought cinema could be, and how cinema could affect me. Are there particular films or filmmakers that had a similar impact on you, where they opened up your mind to new ways that cinema could exist?
Oh, there are so many of them and in so many different ways. I think of those experimental filmmakers who would tackle abstract themes, like Maya Deren and Andy Warhol. They make you look at the world differently, and actually look at the cinema differently. I remember when I went to see Béla Tarr’s Sátántangó, seven hours long, I walked out of the theater and saw the world differently. I think most of these works have to do with time—how your experience at the time related to your real life. That’s what makes you look at your life in a different way, and I think that’s very impactful.

Béla Tarr’s 432-minute epic Sátántangó.
Béla Tarr’s 432-minute epic Sátántangó.

Time is certainly a major theme in Memoria, which we really get into in the second half of the film as Jessica meets the second Hernán, a fish-scaler. Their conversations bring up this idea of how everything we’re experiencing in the world is informed by past experiences—whether it’s our own past, that of other people we’re interacting with, or even the land itself. How did you want to draw out that idea with the film?
Yeah, I think sometimes we need to stop obsessing with ourselves too much, and just know that we are part of it. We are part of the whole waves. We have our own ancestors, grandfathers, grandmothers in us. We are very connected. We think people are strangers, but maybe they’re not. We share something. We breathe the same air. All this connection, I feel like maybe there’s a key to this sound that we have in common. Sound is some puppet, I would say, for the film to hold on to, but I think it reflects something larger than itself.

Empathy is really important in your films, as is mortality, and there’s this stunning moment where that second Hernán shows Jessica how he sleeps. It’s a moment that’s simultaneously unnerving yet also beautiful. Could you talk about the conceptualization of that scene?
I often think, when I develop a movie, about what story I should tell, or I’m just trying to keep the momentum going, and sometimes it’s a bit tiring. I’ll feel like I’m just following a formula, and I don’t feel motivated. I found this opportunity in that moment in Memoria to introduce what I was talking about before, how you need to stop obsessing with yourself, or to stop obsessing with the idea of narrative, of continuity in cinema. Instead, I just wanted to stop for a moment.

Maybe it feels a bit jarring for the audience, because you’re used to continuation in a film. Here, though, the film refuses to go on, and the character refuses to go on, and it forces Jessica to really sit there and just listen and think about what’s going on—to just be. That’s the point of that scene, to shift perspective. That’s the moment where she really starts to feel at ease with her suffering.

Filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul. — Credit… Kick the Machine
Filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul. Credit… Kick the Machine

The climax of the film takes us to this place of transcendental cinema. Without giving anything away, I’d love to hear about how you wanted to design that final section of the film, where Jessica, as you said, becomes more at peace and accepting of her environment, rather than rejecting it. How does her headspace there compare to where it was before then?
To me, Jessica actually doesn’t exist after that scene we were just discussing. She becomes slowly, slowly evaporated. I think in some of my past movies I explored that as well. You become a fictional character, and the idea of self, it just goes. Then we’re talking about something larger, something that no longer fits one personality, but is about the shared time and the shared space of us.

For me, the answer we get at the end of the film is just one possibility for the source of the sound. There are many other sound sources, and in events in different times in our history as well. It just happened to narrow here to the answer we got, but I hope that you feel it could be many other answers that she could have become caught to.

Memoria’ is playing at IFC Center in New York for a one-week run before continuing its one-theater-at-a-time release in perpetuity. A hardcover chronicle of the genesis and creation of the film is available via Fireflies Press.

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