It takes a while for us to hear the first words of Memoria, but that is not to say the latest film from Thai slow-cinema master Apichatpong Weerasethakul starts out quietly. In fact it’s probably, in relative terms, the most explosive opening to a film he’s ever made, lead character Jessica (Tilda Swinton) woken up in the small hours of the morning by a hell of a bang. A loud, dull smack, like a large rock hitting metal, it reverberates around Jessica’s house and starts to follow her around, audible to her and her only.
Memoria’s central mystery of what this noise is and where it comes from is what keeps it compelling and more accessible than either Uncle Boonmee or Cemetery of Splendour, even as Weerasethakul repeats his usual tricks of long, languid takes that, at points, seem as still as photographs. Jessica is a British expat in Colombia and, after managing to recreate the sound with handsome young audio engineer Hernan (Juan Pablo Urrego), heads out of the city of Bogota and into the country’s more rural climes, where she meets another, older Hernan (Elkin Diaz).
They may be the same person (before Jessica’s trip into the jungle, the younger Hernan seemingly vanishes into thin air), and Weerasethakul builds a magic-realist world where small, but unnerving, miracles like this could happen. Colombia suits him as a setting, the country of Gabriel Garcia Marquez a natural fit for a filmmaker always ready to gently step out of conventional reality. Indelible images, like a procession of heavily armed soldiers all trying to hitchhike down a country road, keep you engaged, and little touches of fantasy, like a man with the ability to transmit his memories and references to shamanic curses slowly build and build into a finale of pure sci-fi that is both stunning and cheekily funny.
It is incredibly slow, though, and if you’re not able to get on its slow, psychedelic wavelength relatively quickly, it will test your patience in a big way, if not outright lull you to sleep. But this soporific trance has always been part of Weerasethakul’s intentions in all his films, a way to lower your defences before dropping you into a surreal place and letting you slowly acclimatise to a new world. Memoria won’t exactly convert any Weerasethakul sceptics, languorous and opaque as it is, but it’s a fascinating piece about messages sent from the past to the present, taking in influences from both deep within the earth and beyond the stars, even tying in to Colombia’s recent violent history in smart and sensitive ways.