Tilda Swinton in “Memoria”: Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Big Bang Therapy – film release

Tilda Swinton in “Memoria”: Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Big Bang Therapy – film release

Dhe woman has a bang. Just like us, sitting in the cinema and suddenly being torn out of the comfortably depressive art house twilight by a bloodcurdling thunder. The woman, whose outline in the diffuse backlight is immediately recognizable as that of a ghostly Tilda Swinton, hears this bang at the most inopportune moments: when waking up, in the middle of a conversation or on the street. But the boom isn’t real, it’s just raging in her head. Is it an illness? Or a memory? only on what?

In “Memoria,” 2010 Palme d’Award winning Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul sends widowed and sleepless botanist Jessica (Swinton) on a journey through Colombia. There she meets her sister, who is in the hospital, does not remember Jessica’s previous visit and falls asleep in the middle of the conversation. Later, Jessica inquires about flower refrigerators that “stand still in time”, leafs through a volume on plant diseases and meets an anthropologist who is examining skeletons: they were found when tunneling through the Andes.

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Does all this mean something? Is it related? Apichatpong’s films provoke the same questions a person asks when waking up from a particular dream. As a cinema viewer, you are unconscious, Apichatpong once said in an interview with WELT, that it is best to watch your films without thinking. This is not coquetry, but an invitation. If you are not yet familiar with this work, it is best to start with “Tropical Malady” or “Uncle Boonmee”: Once you have given up resistance to the supposed hermetic nature, you then travel to strangely accessible worlds.

“Memoria” is the director’s first film to shoot abroad and the effect is amazing as it casts a new light on one’s own perception of this work. As so often before, a searching person moves away from the urban into the green of a rain forest, drifts out of the ailing now into the layers of an overgrown past, in which ghosts fight their old battles or tell their eternal jokes.

apparent death and apparent life

But while the regional roots of the mythological elements were able to unfold an exotic effect on the European audience, as was the case recently in “Cemetery of Splendor”, “Memoria” dims this exoticism down through Swinton’s pale European figure. Apparently told more succinctly, it is a journey from the noise that causes dementia into silence, from the apparent life of a mourner who is missing something, to the apparent death of a frugal person who has nothing but remembers everything.

From the shady narrowness of Jessica’s apartment through the hustle and bustle of Bogotá to a creek at the edge of time and civilization, each station leads closer to the origin of the enigmatic sound. At the same time, however, any clear explanation is becoming more and more distant, despite a cute fantasy insert that apparently justifies the bang: Suddenly something from the B-film cosmos thwarts this supposedly so exaggerated, crass intellectual art world that it is a pretty crazy one Fun is.

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With his hypnotically long tableaux and his technically brilliant soundscapes, Apichatpong wants to create the “unconscious” state of the audience, but at the same time call their “madeness” to mind, as he says. Jessica is trying the same thing: to find healing, she wants to turn the noise in her head into something manufactured. So she asks the young sound designer Hernán (Juan Pablo Urrego) to recreate the bang digitally. She describes him as a giant ball of concrete crashing into metal in an ocean.

Apichatpong takes a lot of time for this studio scene. In the intimate alternation of Jessica’s attempts at concretization and Hernán’s technical approaches, the mountain, as Hernán calls the graphics on the monitor, takes shape: sound as a landscape element. Then it rains, and when Jessica returns to the recording studio, nobody there remembers Hernán.

Not individual people, but rather landscapes and areas seem to have an intact (cinema) memory here. This coupling of the living and the inanimate is quite innocently peddled in technical terms: people act as antennas and hard drives, and Jessica once listens to a kind of paleo podcast made from a stone that has stored ancient vibrations. Conversely, parked cars seem animated when, as if torn from their sleep, they start their alarm systems and then go silent again.

How does the big bang sound in your head?  Jessica (Tilda Swinton) at the sound engineer

How does the big bang sound in your head? Jessica (Tilda Swinton) at the sound engineer

What: Port au Prince

The humor in it protects against both: taking it too seriously and dismissing it as eso nonsense. “Memoria” remains in the probable: whoever never sleeps can experience his own head cinema; and Exploding Head Syndrome does exist. The director himself is said to have suffered from this for some time.

Apichatpong’s cinema isn’t interested in the hair-splitting of the probable anyway. It is one that can tell of illness and healing at the same time, of faith and knowledge, and does not take sides. The doctor who sees Jessica would rather hand the patient a Christian flyer than prescribe her pills. In this area, the doctor says, strangely unconcerned, many people have hallucinations. Is this in turn related to the heavy metals in the rivers that are mentioned on the radio?

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To call this trip merely spiritual would misjudge its self-reflective comedy. Especially since everything boils down to a wonderfully wacky booze, a rush by the rushing brook. At the height and perhaps salutary turning point of her search for the cause of her spooky Big Bang Malady, Jessica meets the older version of Hernáns (Elkin Díaz): He downs self-distilled beverages (made of heavy metal water?) with her and can sleep like a dead person on command and remember “everything,” as he puts it. He therefore limits the amount of pictures he sees, which is why he saves on TV and cinema and never leaves the area.

“What happens when you sleep?” Jessica Hernán asks. “Nothing,” he says. “Show me.” Then he lies down leisurely on the grass and falls asleep immediately, with his eyes open and a sickly smile. Maybe we all look like this when we get lost in the movies. In any case, the camera thinks he’s dead: his feet are stuck in dirty shoes, and flies are crawling over his dirty jeans. When he wakes up, she asks him: “How was it?” – “What?” – “Death.” It sounds like an anthropologist’s imaginary conversation with a dug up skeleton: “It was ok. I just stopped.”

Apichatpong’s films enable a very similar state of being, watching and listening as if one had never been exposed to a flood of images. And as if it were less important to remember what happened in the film than what it was like to have been in this world.


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