NZIFF 2021: Memoria (2021)

Some films are made for film festivals, and none more so than any given new film by Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul. Some of them have becoming (surprisingly) modest arthouse hits, like Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, and Memoria is very much in a similar mould, with lush jungle terrains (here in Colombia) and a slow, mysterious narrative that seems to promise both naturalism and also science-fiction and fantasy at times. The central investigation may recall Brian De Palma’s Blow Out, in being based around a mysterious sonic fragment, but there’s little else that recalls mainstream narrative cinema, and Tilda Swinton is looking strangely ordinary here as she searches for… something.


Apichatpong Weerasethakul proves that even making a film largely in English and set in Colombia, he’s still able to make exactly the kinds of films he makes, which is to say slow, somnolent and oblique. As with Cemetery of Splendour I nodded off a little at times (to be fair that one was a film about people with some kind of sleeping sickness), but it felt like part of the artistic process, a durational one, about a woman who seems to be searching for the source of a mysterious sound. That search takes her to various specialists (real or imagined?), and to a small village in the mountains, and those shots of ruins and lush vegetation seem very much of a piece with his most famous works. I think in many ways Memoria extends those themes, with some surprising additions that never exactly serve to make clear what’s been going on, but instead intensify and deepen the mystery. But that’s often the way. This had me fascinated and I loved the slow rhythms of it, but it danced nimbly away from explaining itself. Undoubtedly both this and the pacing will madden many of its potential viewers, but it’s an experience in being open to the possibilities of narrative.

Memoria (2021) posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Apichatpong Weerasethakul อภิชาติพงศ์ วีระเศรษฐกุล; Cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom สยมภู มุกดีพร้อม; Starring Tilda Swinton, Jeanne Balibar, Elkin Díaz; Length 136 minutes.
Seen at Embassy, Wellington, Thursday 18 November 2021.

รักที่ขอนแก่น Rak ti Khon Kaen (Cemetery of Splendour, 2015)

BFI London Film Festival This film was presented at the London Film Festival, introduced by the film’s director alongside the director of the Festival. There was a Q&A session afterwards as well. In his introduction, Weerasethakul joked that we might fall asleep during the film (a play on its thematic content, see below), but as it was a late screening and I’d had a few glasses of wine, I did drift off for some short periods, so the review (more than usual) should be taken as provisional.


Like many of Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s films, this newest one (ostensibly his last to be made in his home country) is imbued with a deep sense of mystery even as it seems on the surface fairly straightforward. Jenjira Pongpas plays a woman with the same name who is a carer at a rural hospital looking after sick soldiers, including Itt (one of the director’s regular stars, Banlop Lomnoi). The nature of the soldiers’ illness is rather oblique but they have a sort of sleeping sickness that renders them comatose. Others who work there embrace spiritualism and faith-based healing, and Jenjira is certainly receptive to this, praying at a local shrine for the health of her wounded leg. One of the princesses to whom the shrine is dedicated comes to her and shows her hidden features of the local area, including a royal palace and a cemetery under the hospital. As these plot details accrue, the line between reality and the dream world is blurred, in very subtle ways — the different states are almost entirely intertwined with one another with only slight visual clues indicating the non-naturalistic nature of this resulting world. Both Jen and the audience are drawn into an imaginary landscape, which is apparently intended as a critique of the ruling regime in Thailand and their call to patriotic royalist feelings and relying heavily on appeals to a syncretic pantheistic religious practice — or at least, this is my provisional response to one viewing of the film, myself partially under the influence of sleep. It’s a fascinating work, perhaps one of Weerasethakul’s strongest, and I shall certainly be seeking out another viewing when it is released properly.

Cemetery of Splendour film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Apichatpong Weerasethakul อภิชาติพงศ์ วีระเศรษฐกุล; Cinematographer Diego Garcia; Starring Jenjira Pongpas เจนจิรา จันทร์สุดา, Banlop Lomnoi บรรลพ ล้อมน้อย; Length 122 minutes.
Seen at Vue West End, London, Tuesday 13 October 2015.

สัตว์ประหลาด Sud pralad (Tropical Malady, 2004)

There is no doubting that Tropical Malady is a strange film. It is perplexing and operates in registers that few films do, and thinking back on it I really want to like it for what it does, and for being so resolutely unlike other films. It is a film that pushes at the boundaries of what being human means, and what separates us from animals, but it does so in a demandingly oblique way, so much so that I’d actually seen the film nine years earlier but could not remember it at all (though that may just be my own memory being terrible).

The film uses a two act structure and through the re-use of the same lead actors the possibility is held out that the second part is a re-telling of the first. However, that doesn’t account for the experience of watching the film, which is to have one’s narrative expectations constantly rebuffed, though partly that’s just from my overfamiliarity with (and reliance upon) Hollywood screenwriting structures. Here, the characters are built up through short scenes suffused with silence, glimpsed haphazardly, accruing details of life in layers (Tong’s time spent in the army, riding on buses through the city, working in an ice factory). By the time the first act is coming to a close, we only have a sense of these two people, Keng and Tong, and their growing feelings for one another, and this is where the film abruptly and surprisingly changes tack.

For the second part of the film, the screen fades from black and a new credits sequence begins, with a new title, and now we’re in mythic territory, where the line between human and animal is limned by mystical figures. Keng is now a soldier stranded alone in the jungle and Tong, naked and tattooed, is hunting him, ostensibly a shaman who can take the form of an animal. This second world is one where a bird can communicate, subtitled on screen, but it’s shot in the same naturalistic style as the first part, just with a new, deeper and darker, jungle setting.

What we’re left with then is an atavistic psychological terrain, which takes elements of folk tradition and blends it with contemporary naturalistic filmmaking practices. It’s been a consistent thematic interest of Weerasethakul, up to his most recent film Lung Buymi raluk chati (Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, 2010), which shares some of the same atmosphere, and which is in fact foreshadowed by some dialogue in Tropical Malady.

The film leaves open a lot more questions than it can possibly answer, and is shrouded in enigma. For me, I just had trouble enjoying the way the film unfolded, and found the pacing and characters uninvolving. I concede that other viewers may have a quite different reaction, gauging from some of the more gushing reviews, and I just want to be up-front about my reactions. I am conscious that I have trouble with films dealing with the supernatural (many of which tend to fall into the horror genre, though here it’s more of an arthouse tradition), as I tend to be rather prosaic in my interests. Lovers of ghost stories with a tolerance for elliptical and quiet filmmaking may find Weerasethakul’s work rewarding, but speaking for myself, I found the experience tested my patience.


CREDITS
Director/Writer Apichatpong Weerasethakul อภิชาติพงศ์ วีระเศรษฐกุล; Cinematographers Jarin Pengpanitch จริน เพ็งพานิช, Vichit Tanapanitch วิชิต ธนาพานิชย์ and Jean-Louis Vialard; Starring Sakda Kaewbuadee ศักดา แก้วบัวดี, Banlop Lomnoi บัลลพ ล้อมน้อย; Length 125 minutes.
Seen at ICA, London, Sunday 24 October 2004 and Sunday 28 April 2013.