The movie, which screens this week at the Tokyo International Film Festival, was Weerasethakul’s first shot outside his native Thailand. The picture was also the first time that he got to work with his long-time friend, Scottish actor Tilda Swinton. Speaking more Spanish than English, she plays a foreign woman (Jessica) in Colombia who goes off in search of an ominous sound.
“Something I had dreamed of for a long time was working with Tilda. But we had to find a country that was foreign to both of us. We embraced the idea of not knowing, of exploring and to try to understand. The film is also about that too,” Weerasethakul said this week.
The director, who has a habit of describing a film like a living person, fielded Tokyo audience questions on a video link from Chiang Mai. Many questions focused on the audio, rather than the visual.
“At a certain point in my life, I listened to a lot of music, and it was a source of inspiration. But after a few years I listened less,” he said. At another point in the conversation, he suggested that music can get in the way of appreciating the natural soundscape.
“The music of [2010 film] ‘Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives’ was not linked to the film itself, but to the filmmaking. The crew members listened to a particular song that I’d come to associate with the film and in post-production or sound mix stage would try it out. Music can be like a memory mark.
“For ‘Memoria’ it was different again. Because it is about sound. I wanted to introduce music as sound in that scene where you see Jessica coming and the music is performing. It is not only about music per se, but about instruments that come together to create this melody. After that, throughout the film, it is about bits and pieces of different sounds, nature, birds, water that could be musical.”
The auteur seemed to take a perverse pleasure in explaining that the film’s music, by Cesar Lopez, is not available as a soundtrack. “This piece of music belongs to the film and should not stand alone. You’ll just have to see the film again,” he teased.
He reflected on Bogota’s changeable weather. “In each day you can have wind, rain and sun. So, people are prepared a lot when they go out of the house. I found that very inspiring, people always anticipating certain patterns of weather,” Weerasethakul said.
As the movie progresses, the rain becomes something else. The rain in the dark is an association with memory. Each drop can be a memory. There are tens of thousands of memories raining down on you in the theater. It manifests this idea that we are individuals, we are separated, but at the same time we are flowing in the same stream of life.”
“[Sound and vision in a film] are about awareness. Of the character and of the audience. My past films were about that too. It is just that ‘Memoria’ is about the character listening to the sound. You become synchronized with her.
“In my other films, there are always layers and layers of audio experience that reflect the way that I appreciate the world.
“Another angle is about the awareness of being in the cinema. So that you understand the illusion of filmmaking. When you understand that, you approach the movie differently. That can be liberating,” he said.
Weerasethakul clearly enjoyed a change of location and the different modus operandi that it enforced. He spoke of returning to shoot another movie in either Colombia or Mexico.
“I must have been changed by the experience of letting go. In Thailand I run around approving this or that. But in Colombia, because I didn’t know a thing, I just didn’t have total control. I let all the different partners in the film, the art director, costume and so on, share with me. I focused on Jessica, or on listening to the rhythm and heartbeat of the film.
“The post-production was really complicated because I was trying to relive the experience. I was asking the film itself ‘what do you want to express?’,” he said.
That question was turned on the filmmaker himself, when a Tokyo audience member asked if Weerasethal was being a little bit coy with the film’s ending.
“In some sense, it is close to my film ‘Tropical Malady’ in 2004. In the end the character does not exist and is integrated into nature. Both men kind of disappear or become part of the wind,” Werasethakul explained. “This film is similar, and once, in the river scene, Hernan shows her how to stop. That is key for Jessica to stop being. Stop everything and be at peace. Then she no longer exists for me.”
And he waxed metaphysical in response to another gentle audience prod.
“The setting [of the film] is an illusion. What interests me is the emotion of the characters or of the film itself. So, whether it is a natural setting or [amidst] architecture, it doesn’t matter to me,” he said. “The film is like a person. After a while it should be enough that it just gives a hint, and you start to understand or allow you access into that world.”