Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul discuss his latest cinematic odyssey Memoria, starring Tilda Swinton in an exploration into the human mind and memory
Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Memoria is an ocean of transcendent moments, my favourite of which is when Tilda Swinton observes a man falling asleep in real time. Jessica, an orchidologist played by Swinton, encounters a fish scaler, Hernán, who claims he cannot dream. Per Jessica’s request, he cradles himself next to a river, shuts his eyes, and eventually drifts off. The “action set-piece”, shot as a lengthy take, would be arduous, if not unimaginable, in the hands of most directors, but under Weerasethakul’s guidance, it’s a magical, time-manipulating reminder of why the theatrical experience will always trump streaming.
Filmmakers always insist they direct for the big screen, but Weerasethakul truly means it. In America, Neon vow that Memoria will never be released for laptops or home entertainment; in the UK, Sovereign’s rollout is exclusive to theatres. My first viewing was during the 2021 London Film Festival at Southbank’s Royal Festival Hall: more than 2,000 bodies collectively hypnotised in the dark, watching Swinton watching someone sleep.
Then again, I sometimes wondered if the cinemagoer in front of me was also napping. Such is the soothing, somnolent rhythm of his oeuvre, Weerasethakul considers it a compliment if viewers doze off. So much so, the Thai director’s features and shorts screened overnight in 2016 at the Tate Modern from 10pm to 1:45pm the following day. “It’s amazing to mix films with your dreams,” Weerasethakul says. “Memoria is one thing at night. During the day, it’s another.”
When I speak to Weerasethakul over Zoom, it’s in late October in 2021, and he’s at home in Phuket, in the south of Thailand. The 51-year-old director is both a niche name and also one of the biggest auteurs on the international film circuit. Although his releases don’t exactly dominate your local Odeon, they nearly always win something at Cannes: the Un Certain Regard prize with Blissfully Yours; the Grand Jury award with Tropical Malady and Memoria; and the Palme d’Or with Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives.
18 years ago, Swinton wrote to Weerasethakul, expressing her admiration for Tropical Malady. Memoria marks both their long-awaited collaboration and also Weerasethakul’s first feature outside Thailand. “We tried to understand the history and memories of the place,” Weerasethakul says of Colombia. “Tropical Malady was really personal and full of my own memories, but Memoria was an interpretation. It was about an absorption of other memories.”
In Medellín, Jessica has flown over to research botany, and to visit her sister, Karen, who’s in hospital with a mysterious illness. However, Jessica suffers from her own atypical malady: an bang noise occurs in her head at unexpected moments. In turn, she investigates Colombia as if she doesn’t belong to the same planet. Swinton, of course, has previously embodied extra-terrestrial creatures (Friendship’s Death), immortal beings (Only Lovers Left Alive, Suspiria), and whatever The Ancient One is (Doctor Strange). “My reference of Tilda is firstly as a friend, and then as someone who appeared in a Derek Jarman film (Blue),” the director says. “I’m not familiar with her other work, except that period, and also Orlando.
“(Tilda Swinton) came up with a certain spirit that made me see the film’s rhythm and its heart – without talking, but showing me” – Apichatpong Weerasethakul
“When we worked on Memoria, the idea of (her background playing) aliens didn’t come up, but maybe the idea of disconnection, that she’s not totally grounded, and is in between worlds. She came up with a certain spirit that made me see the film’s rhythm and its heart – without talking, but showing me.”
As Jessica reveals an abnormal talent for deciphering other people’s memories, was Weerasethakul tapping into Swinton’s empathy? “Tilda is really active, really fun, and full of humour, whereas Jessica is sombre. But just now, talking to you, maybe they’re the same person. Because when you talk about empathy, I think that Tilda Swinton is full of empathy. She can jump into any situation without planning. She says yes to everything. That shows a certain kind of empathy, to immediately just be in the present.”
Perhaps Jessica’s ailment is less an illness and more a superpower; a gift for perception so devastating, she detects soundwaves beyond what our mortal ears can hear. Does Weerasethakul also see the world differently? “I think everyone’s way of hearing and seeing is different.” He cites the viral test about a dress that looks blue to some, gold to others. “Each one of us accumulates experiences, and our brain interprets shapes and colours differently.”
OK, everyone’s vision is distinct, but surely his vision is a little more distinct? And that’s what makes his films so inimitable? “No, I just have an opportunity. It’s teamwork… and it’s still a mystery to me how to do a movie. With Memoria, I created a film that was different from what I had in my head at the conception in 2017. It’s not that I could see clearly what I wanted.”
Weerasethakul grew up and studied architecture in Thailand, before completing a masters in filmmaking at the Art Institute of Chicago. However, his films are extremely unamerican. His early features, Mysterious Object at Noon and Blissfully Yours, captured the sensuous pleasures of Thailand’s locale, the persistent buzzing of insects, the luxury of spontaneously wandering into the jungle. Tropical Malady and Syndromes and a Century further depicted the overlap between humans and nature, the living and the dead, the real and the unreal.
Then, in 2010, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives was an unlikely Palme d’Or winner, a bewitching fantasia in which a spirit joins the dining table, a princess loudly fucks a catfish, and it all makes sense. Around this period, Weerasethakul was sent scripts by American companies (“always about Thailand, often about boxing”) but he persisted with his own ideas. While Weerasethakul, who is gay, didn’t face trouble from Thai censors with his homosexual characters, the political themes were another matter. In 2015’s Cemetery of Splendour, a sleeping sickness sent soldiers into a coma; it wasn’t allowed to be released uncut in Thailand.
After Cemetery of Splendour, Weerasethakul vowed to no longer shoot in Thailand, picking Colombia as his first detour. Does Colombia sound different to Thailand? “I think so. The soundscape, the temperature, and the humidity always bring out a different sound. But in the end, human emotions are really universal.”
Memoria is Weerasethakul’s reunion with Sayombhu Mukdeeprom, the cinematographer who lensed the director’s early work up to Uncle Boonmee; in the decade since, Mukdeeprom was the DoP on Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me By Your Name and Suspiria. “(After Call Me By Your Name) I think he’s been more free to interfere very little with my process… He supports very well, now, my use of minimal lighting. Actors shouldn’t be bothered by lights. They should be able to walk and explore their environment in long takes. He has to be discreet, and he delivers.”
“I had to be careful as a foreigner in how to approach it, and be respectful to people’s memory” – Apichatpong Weerasethakul
While Jessica avoids lengthy monologues about colonialism, Colombia’s history is present through the openness of Mukdeeprom’s camerawork. “I knew that the political subtext would be there,” Weerasethakul says. “I had to be careful as a foreigner in how to approach it, and be respectful to people’s memory. Jessica’s like cinema: she’s collecting sound and images, that’s all. The awareness of the trauma is already there in the audience, so it’s really active in terms of how the audience makes it work.”
Weerasethakul is considering shooting his next film in Mexico, but first there’s the unexpected controversy over Memoria’s release. Neon’s so-called “Never-Ending Theatrical Tour” in America means that it’ll only play one cinema at a time, moving from city to city, week by week. In an age when Dune went straight to HBO Max (and, you know, torrents) on its day of release, it’s a rarity for such a small film to reject streaming. However, Memoria could become unavailable to people who are disabled, scared of COVID, or not geographically near a screening.
“Because the States is so big, if you blanket the film in the whole country in one week, it’ll be gone quickly, and it’ll be streaming,” Weerasethakul says. “I don’t feel Memoria is made for streaming. I think people will understand once they see the film that it’s about the cinema experience. The images and sounds were designed for that. We made this tour because of precisely that – it’ll go to your town, whereas before it wouldn’t.
“It’s a chance for people, if they’re patient, to wait, and it’ll be there. It’s already in many cities because of film festivals, and then for regular release, it’ll go town to town, and have a direct communication with cinemas, to sustain that. It’s a very small film, but it’s a symbol, that we need to save independent and local cinemas. It activates that space, and makes you feel like this is precious: your cinema in your town is showing this.”
So to double-check, would he prefer someone didn’t watch Memoria at all, if they’re otherwise going to stream it? “Yes. Memoria is not my film on a laptop. It’s another film… Sound has a 3D quality. The image, OK, is flat – the bigger, the better. But sound has a sculptural quality that you cannot create.”
To end, I ask Weerasethakul about a Q&A I attended for Cemetery of Splendour in 2015. On stage, Weerasethakul remarked that, one day, movie characters shitting on screen will be as normal as seeing, for instance, a family at the dinner table. Does he still believe that to be true? “I do, actually,” he says. “Erections and defecating – what else did I say? I don’t know when, but they will. Because making cinema is about breaking taboos, little by little. The social taboos, the taboo of the image.”
Memoria is out in UK cinemas on January 14