Thoughts on the film Memoria

Cherry blossoms viewing at Asukayama – Wikimedia Commons

The film Memoria is highly unusual and intriguing, prompting me to reflect on how to make sense of what is actually happening in the film.  Rather giving any kind of comprehensive review or summary, however, I am just sharing here some of the workings of my own mind in response to the film.

The film is by the acclaimed Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul, and stars the renowned lead actress Tilda Swinton, neither of whom I am really familiar with, so my own thoughts are mainly based on what I saw in the film itself.  Indeed, it seems to me precisely the interesting point that the a wide variety of interpretations of the film are possible.  A variety of different scenes are presented, raising different themes, and it is perhaps up to the viewer to decide what their significance is in terms of determining an overall narrative or plot in a conventional sense.

As I understand, the filmmaker’s Buddhist heritage is an inspiration in his work, and this is perhaps evident again in this film, although I don’t know if any in-depth study has been made of how he draws on Buddhist traditions.  It would perhaps be interesting to analyse his body of work in terms of the themes of Buddhist literature and philosophy, and my thoughts here will touch on this.

For me, an interesting way of thinking about the film is about ways in which the bounds of reality, or at least, our awareness of such bounds, can become blurred and uncertain.  Buried relics, such as ancient bones, can have an impact that seemingly jumps across time and into the present.  Likewise, the minds of people long-dead, their feelings and experiences, can perhaps be accessed by our protagonist Jessica, and by the mysterious Hernán, in the present.  Indeed, the title is perhaps a reference to the memories of people from the past.

This reminds me not exactly of the doctrine of past lives, which seems to have been a theme in his previous work, but rather of the idea of ālaya-vijñāna, or storehouse-consciousness, which is a notable doctrine of Yogācāra Buddhism.  Our perceptions are shaped by things rising up out of this store of consciousness, containing the impressions, or, perhaps, aftershocks of past actions stretching back long before our own lifetime.

The setting in Columbia allows the film to draw on ancient traditions about the supernatural, represented for example by the ancient skull, trepanned to release bad spirits.  The story about the indigenous tribe who resist contact, and the speculation about strange curses that they are perhaps putting on those who attempt to contact them, is another such way to find continuity with mysterious ancient traditions and the supernatural.

The most patent way in which Jessica’s sense of reality, and perhaps our own, is shaken, is with the two Hernáns, at least the first of whom seems in the end never to have existed at all.  Again, we have the sense of lives connecting and intersecting in meaningful ways, a typical plot motif, but in this case in ways that can’t completely be made sense of from within the framework of a conventional narrative.

If we are searching for a prosaic resolution to the film, we can perhaps find it in the news that seems to be reported at the end of the film, of suspected arsenic and copper contamination in the water supply from construction work, which we may assume could cause the hallucination that are referred to by the doctor in her consultation with Jessica.  Indeed, Jessica’s sister too appears to be afflicted in some unclear way.  Nevertheless, the film’s title ‘Memoria‘ somehow points us to the deeper themes discussed above, which for me, seem to form a fluid play of ideas without any definite interpretation.

Indeed, it is perhaps this play of ideas, which informs the plot narrative without fully determining it, which is most characteristic of a Buddhist sensibility, psychologically and even aesthetically.  Regardless of what in the film was actually real and what may have hallucinated, such as the two Hernáns, from a phenomenological level, Jessica, and along with her, the viewer, must put together the pieces of experience in order to construct some kind of story about what is happening.   And it is this psychological process of piecing together elements of first-person experience, that are perhaps of uncertain and ambiguous significance in the context of the whole film, into a subjective construction which is how the Yogācāra Buddhists describe what is going on in our perception of reality.

At an aesthetic level, too, this delicate handling of different scenes and images, and the associated manner of filming, almost like an artistic exhibition of images, conveys a lightness and dreamlike quality that we may at times perceive in our reality.  This perhaps reminds us of other Buddhist-inspired art, such as the Japanese ukiyo-e, about which we read

“Literally, the term ukiyo means “Floating World.” However, it is also a homophone (a word that is written differently but sounds the same when spoken) with the Japanese term for “Sorrowful World.” … Despite being surrounded by exquisite beauty and every earthly pleasure, the merchants and samurai who partook of the Floating World seem to have been plagued by the feeling that their lives were meaningless and unchanging. This is reflected in some of their poems.”

At times this film was difficult to watch, as it made me self-conscious about my own impatience with the slow pacing of the film and lack of focused narrative.  The slowness of the filming also reminded me of aspects of Indic culture where our sense of the passage of time is similarly slowed down in a meditative way, such as styles of Indian classical music that are characterised by an extremely slow tempo.  By the end of the film, I felt a self-conscious sense of bafflement, yet it has also left me eager to see more of the work of this filmmaker.

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