Milwaukee Film Festival Review: ‘Memoria’ Creates Special Experience

The latest polarizing film from Apichatpong Weerasethakul was a unique highlight of the Milwaukee Film Festival

By Collin Chesak, Current Staff

I fell in love with film over the pandemic, and finally, after two and a half years of attempting to become a cinephile, I was able to visit my first film festival. The 2022 Milwaukee Film Festival was the first in two years to have in-person showings, and being a high schooler in Wisconsin, it was my first real opportunity to visit a festival. 

Unfortunately due to a lack of funding and the lofty responsibilities of being a high schooler, I was only able to see six feature films in total over the 15 days of the festival, which ended May 5. I notably saw “Cha Cha Real Smooth,” which won the audience award at Sundance, and “Petite Maman,” the new exceptional outing from celebrated French director Céline Sciamma.

However, there was one film that I think I will never forget, “Memoria,” directed by Apichatpong Weerasethakul, who is commonly referred to as “Joe.”

“Memoria” is a critically-acclaimed film that has generated mixed reactions from audiences with every aspect of its presentation, even its marketing and release strategy; the movie, which its distributor says will never reach home video or streaming platforms, is being shown at only one theater at any given time and has traveled across the country continuously since its American premiere on December 26.

For example, Rotten Tomatoes critics have given the film 88% positive reviews, while only 46% of audience reviews are positive. Based on word of mouth and reactions on the web, the Milwaukee Film Festival audience was no different in this regard. My taste tends to favor the critics in most cases, but a poor audience score is still a somewhat discouraging figure.

The film was going to be my first-ever festival feature, so it was safe to say I was very excited. After learning that festivals do indeed have trailers and ads and then speaker introductions, I was at the edge of my seat in anticipation. The speaker primed the audience for an unusual experience by saying that the film would open with 10 minutes of silence and still photography even before the studio logos appear.

Out of respect for the director’s wishes, I and most of the audience inside the historic Oriental Theatre remained silent during the opening stills. The formality of the film festival, along with the “event” status created by the film’s release strategy, drew a large, knowledgeable and respectful audience..

However, this respectful silence was interrupted by a hilarious string of contagious coughing that engulfed the audience during at least two-thirds of the silent period. I was even tempted to sarcastically whisper to my friend about whether or not we would catch a cold. 

In “Memoria,” Weerasethakul is fascinated with preserving an atmosphere or moment for long periods of time, even attempting to do so before the studio logos are shown. I was held in a state of excitement due to this being my first festival film. 

Soon the silence ends and the “real” film begins with the protagonist, Jessica, sleeping in bed when “BANG”, what was that? “BANG”, oh again, this is gonna be a reoccurring thing isn’t it? This BANG” serves as the inciting incident for a film whose story revolves around Jessica seeking to learn the source of the persistent, insomnia-inducing noise that only she hears. 

After the opening scene, “Memoria” gives us vague clues indicating what may be the source of this noise in the form of car alarms, which are mixed with the hustle and bustle of city life. 

We see the ramification that this has on its characters through Jessica’s insomnia and her sister’s undiagnosed mental illness, which seems to be a form of depression. However, even if the modern era seems to be this overwhelming blanket of stress. The film still inks in the spoils of the past as causes for these present issues; an archeology study reveals the spoils of ancient tribal warfare. The sound itself is described as a rumble from the core of the earth, suggesting these problems have always been here and were inherited from the universe. 

Jessica is a Scottish botanist, played with weariness and wit by Tilda Swinton, who is doing some type of research in Colombia. I say “some type” because in an early scene she is discussing this research with a colleague and the conversation is inaudible due to the surrounding rain. It is almost as if Weerasethakul is trying to tell his audience that character background and traditional narrative are insignificant in this film. 

Jessica merely acts as a tour guide whose intellectual fatigue mirrors the audience’s struggle to find a narrative connection in such a richly atmospheric film. Scenes occasionally don’t feature Jessica at all, and most of the time she is a reactive figure. 

Tilda Swinton, the lead actress of “Memoria,” speaking at the Vienna International Film Festival in 2018. Image used with permission via Wikimedia Commons.

The film includes various shots of different lecturer-audience awareness dynamics suggesting Weerasethakul is aware his film might not appeal to certain audiences. Musicians play instruments passionately while audiences passively nod. We see an educational lecture on an unfamiliar subject while the students viewing take rigorous notes. 

His awareness does not involve a lack of effort to connect as he broadly exemplifies modern miscommunications beyond the artistic relationship to a plethora of common situations: awkward dinner conversations, cryptic dreams and name-based confusion. 

“Memoria” becomes this broad exemplification of miscommunication occurring due to the hustle and bustle of the modern world. Weerasethakul gives us a bit of everything, in hopes that audience members will find something personal to latch on to.

Once one of these metaphors reaches you, it allows you to enjoy the detailed calmness of the film’s direction. There are no filler or transition shots in “Memoria.” Each shot and sequence is a unique example that allows the audience to see the extent of humanity’s inability to communicate with each other. Shots are multifaceted and held for an extensive period of time, allowing the audience to make observations. Weerasethakul uses deep focus and background noise to draw audiences to multiple subjects within a single shot. Sound acts in a similar way, as multiple frequencies can be heard during a sequence. Sometimes, the only way two shots in a sequence are linked is by sound frequency and the rate a subject moves. 

Weerasethakul is trying to communicate with his audience at a sensory level, stripping down environments to the specific sounds and visual details that create an unsettling feeling in your subconscious. Lengthy sequences allow the audience to take the time to process and comprehend the greater, extensive web of juxtapositions that make up “Memoria.”

He, his audience, and, his main character find refuge in a small house in a rural Colombian town, where we meet an unfamiliar face with the familiar name of Hernan. 

The first Hernan was a sound engineer who attempted to use his expertise to help Jessica find out the source of her “noise.” They become friends and it seems like he is going to play a crucial role in the film, but he never succeeds in identifying the sound and soon mysteriously disappears. 

The second Hernan is helpful like the first Hernan, but that is where the similarities end. The first Hernan is a younger citizen of Bogota whose aid centers around technology. The second Hernan has lived a secluded, rural lifestyle which seems to be able to recall every moment of his existence, even before his birth. It’s almost as if the first Hernan is our expected savior while the second subverts commonality. 

Hernan number two and Jessica meet by coincidence and they discuss her insomnia and his minimalist lifestyle. A surreal sequence occurs and it seems the source of the sound is a memory the duo shares. 

However, shortly after this sequence, the sound is shown to also be produced by another source. The inclusion of this source casts doubt on what you thought you experienced between Hernan and Jessica or at the very least complicates your interpretation.

Apichatpong Weerasethakul, director of “Memoria,” at the opening of the Vienna International Film Festival in 2010. Image used with permission via Wikimedia Commons.

Weerasethakul theorizes that shared memory would be a better medium to communicate, but still questions the abilities of such a concept. Memories can be broken down into individual senses, meaning that people describe or, in the case of “Memoria,” “feel a memory” in a manner that can use similar sensory details to create the illusion of having the same memory as someone else.

He knows that there is no concrete answer to the questions he asks in his film and uses his ending to instill in viewers a sense of wonder about the task of attempting to coordinate solutions to complex societal issues. He promotes experimentation and ingenuity as traits that are best cultivated by natural happenstance rather than heavy organization and planning. Simply, when a person focuses on their needs and present surroundings everything seems so much more manageable.

“Memoria” is a film that provides extensive support for a feeling-based philosophy. It is a film that poses questions and experiments with concepts rather than giving a bold thematic statement. I have always found such films to be a rewarding experience. They require a higher level of attention but can garner a greater reward. 

“Stream of imagery” films like “Memoria” have never been mainstream successes, but they have also been met with greater hostility in recent years. They’ve always been a very exclusive category of movies to enjoy. This is why seeing a new release that fits into this niche, my niche, on the big screen as my first-ever festival film was such a special moment for me. 

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