Sounds of History

Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Palme d’Or-winning Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010) begins with a title card: ‘Facing the jungle, the hills and vales, my past lives as an animal and other beings rise up before me’. Boonmee lives on a farm in Isaan, Thailand’s rural northeast, the same region where Apichatpong was raised. He grows tamarinds and keeps bees. Surrounded by dense jungle, the edges of Boonmee’s farm demarcate a threshold between civilization and wilderness, man and animal – as well as speaking to something else, something mythological.

What are those ‘other beings’ the title card refers to? Midway through the film, a late-night dinner is interrupted by two spirits: Huay, Boonmee’s dead wife, who appears as a faded apparition; and Boonsong, Boonmee’s long-lost son, who has become a ‘monkey ghost’ – Apichatpong’s own creation, resembling a mid-budget Bigfoot with glowing red eyes. There are several more monkey ghosts in the film, and one senses the presence of other phantoms throughout. There is also a talking catfish, perhaps a water god, who copulates with a princess at the mouth of a waterfall.

These are not the only mythic creatures to inhabit Apichatpong’s films. Tropical Malady (2004) features seua saming, or were-tigers, which come in two types, male and female. The latter is always a malevolent spirit, while the former can bend its shape at will, maintaining the mind and soul of a human even in tiger form. The film culminates in an encounter between Keng, a young soldier, and Tong, a seua saming, deep in the jungle one night, where Keng confesses his love: ‘Monster, I give you my spirit, my flesh, and my memories. Every drop of my blood sings our song. A song of happiness. There… do you hear it?’ The scene may be one of the most beautiful in world cinema – marked, like all Apichatpong’s films, by slowness, stillness and strangeness. Though Apichatpong is today something of a festival darling, this protracted sensibility still sometimes leaves audiences at a distance. Even the Cannes intelligentsia struggled with Tropical Malady when it debuted. Some reportedly left the film early; others stayed and booed.

If you find yourself sedated rather than sutured by Apichatpong’s languid pace and oblique images, he would much rather you simply fall asleep. In fact, he encourages it. He compares the experience of cinema to that of dreaming (not the first director to do so): losing oneself in the dark, the body subsumed by light. Dreams are merely another layer of reality, Apichatpong argues, ever present, much like spirits. This perhaps explains the ease with which his films marry realist aesthetics with the presence of ‘other beings’ – why the ghost of a dead ox can rise from its own corpse and lumber so naturally into the night. As in a dream, ontological borders are dissolved. Living and dead have no difference, nor reality and imagination, truth and myth.

The mythological, however, is missing from Memoria, Apichatpong’s tenth film and his first shot outside of Thailand. The action takes place in Colombia, where Tilda Swinton plays Jessica, an awkward orchidologist suffering from auditory hallucinations – the recurrence of a sudden booming sound, inspired by the director’s own experience of Exploding Head Syndrome. Though in many respects Memoria represents a departure for Apichatpong – his first film not in Thai, his first to use professional actors – it nevertheless follows a familiar arc: Jessica travels from city to jungle where, like Keng or Boonmee, she experiences a strange and overwhelming encounter with the other. Only this time, removed from Apichatpong’s native Thai mythology, what she encounters is not a monkey ghost, were-tiger, or concupiscent catfish. To give the game away: it is an alien.

His name is Hernán, a man who can recall all past lives – even those of stones and trees. He resembles Borges’s Funes the Memorious, isolated and evading interaction so as to remove himself from the vast flurry of narratives that would otherwise overwhelm him.

This is one of two Hernáns in the film; the other is young and handsome, with no special powers except as a musician. Jessica asks for his aid in electronically recreating the booming sound in her head, and this, in a sense, is the entire plot of the film: she seeks the source of her sound and meets the young Hernán; she seeks it a second time, following its direction out into the jungle, and meets the old Hernán. Though not quite sexual, nor love-struck, nor horrific, as with the encounters in Tropical Malady or Uncle Boonmee, what occurs between Jessica and each Hernán is nevertheless a profound experience.

How to articulate a sound only you can hear? Jessica tries at one point – ‘Bang!’ – and it is hard to imagine this helps the young Hernán much. She has come to meet him at his studio in Bogotá, on the recommendation of a mutual friend, and he attempts to recreate the ‘bang’ digitally using pre-existing soundbites. Thankfully, Jessica’s second attempt at a description is more illustrative: ‘A big ball of concrete falls into a metal well surrounded by seawater’. It conjures a Magrittian image – simple shapes and textures, knowable objects made strange.

For Magritte, the ocean is a threshold much like Apichatpong’s jungle, the place at which we slithered ashore and became human. (Think of The Collective Invention or The Wonders of Nature, both featuring Magritte’s inverted mermaid – a ‘missing link’. The latter work also implies a colonial arrival, a discovery or first contact, with its hazy galleon looming in the distance, a useful image for thinking about Memoria and its alien.) The surreal seawater sound prompts a kind of evolution within Jessica. She begins to transcend the human world, to lose track of time and place and people. At a dinner party, she mistakenly believes that someone is dead; later, she searches for the young Hernán, only to discover that he may never have existed at all.

When she first meets the old Hernán, at his cabin on the outskirts of the Amazon, he is scaling little red fish. He is somewhat animalian himself – mermaid-like – capable of translating the nearby cries of howler monkeys. For Hernán, all sounds are ‘vibrations’ that hold in them the history of the world. He views the terrestrial as Jessica does orchids: as subjects to be studied. Earlier in the film, Jessica visits a local hospital to see her sister, Karen, who is also unwell. (Another mystery – the curse of a dog, Karen speculates.) Jessica sits in a hallway, blocking a door, until the diener arrives and asks her to move. Noticing what lies within, she asks, ‘Is that a morgue?’ and is promptly invited inside. As she enters, Apichatpong cuts to a library, where Jessica is looking through pictures of infected orchids, their fleshy leaves and petals all painted with disease.

If Memoria is a work of anthropology, in which the alien is an objective and all-seeing observer, then the film is hamstrung by Apichatpong’s fear of descending into ethnography – his discomfort at being elsewhere than his native Thailand, and not wanting to impose. When I spoke to the director some years ago, when Memoria was still in its germinal stages, he communicated this hesitancy, stating that he could not ‘represent a genuine memory there [in Colombia]’ because he was an ‘outsider’. ‘You just feel like you cannot and will not understand certain things. You’re really on the outside’.

This explains Jessica’s role as a fish out of water – a character who relies heavily on Swinton’s distinctive appearance (Swinton herself describes Jessica not as a character but a ‘predicament’). A widow without direction, Jessica is pale and gaunt, eyes over-tired, a ghost drifting through frozen time, haunted and haunting. She hardly blinks when Hernán discloses that he is an alien (‘I remember we were floating through space and then I was born’), nor when he tries to sleep and momentarily dies (‘I just stopped’). Perhaps she senses in him a kindred spirit, or something as strange as herself.

When Hernán finishes scaling his fish he shares some tequila with Jessica, a homebrew apparently useful for invoking dreams. They move inside, and soon we are treated to an incredibly long scene, in single-take, where the two hold hands and Hernán channels his memories (the world’s memories) through Jessica – ‘I am like a hard disk and you are an antenna’, he says. Jessica begins to remember experiences that are not her own. It seems agonizing; tears fall from her eyes. Petrified, she becomes like Benjamin’s angel of history, privy to all the misery of the world, staring back at the great storm blowing from Paradise. There is, in Benjamin’s description, a certain historical impotence that resonates here. ‘The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed’; but this vision of an all-at-once history has ‘got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them’.

No reference however is made in Memoria to Colombia’s unique horrors, its slumbering dead. In the style of distorted radio, we hear voices, the vague stories of a man mugged and a girl hiding beneath a bed. Perhaps this is that awful banging noise now attuned to human frequency, revealed not as a roar but a scream. And yet, one senses that we are not meant to feel for these disembodied voices so much as for Jessica, our awestruck angel, who suddenly believes that she has lived these experiences, that she was once hiding in this room, though from what we do not know. As a masterful display of cinema’s capacity to communicate through sound, this sequence represents Memoria’s great encounter – reminiscent of Keng and Tong in the jungle. But though it is certainly affecting, it also feels politically deadened in a way that Apichatpong’s films never have before.

Part of the reason for Apichatpong filming in Colombia is an ongoing battle with censorship in his homeland. ‘The government thinks the media needs to be propaganda’, he said in 2016 of the then-junta government – the product of Thailand’s 18th coup since it ceased to be an absolutely monarchy in 1932. ‘I have no colour but I’m not neutral’. This is true: Apichatpong’s films are never explicitly political, and the scenes that have been censored are often some of his most innocuous. Those removed ­– on apparently moral grounds – from Cemetery of Splendour (2015) include a monk playing guitar and two doctors kissing, for example. Nevertheless, Apichatpong protested their removal by leaving those scenes black, and later pulling the film from circulation in Bangkok.

Apichatpong’s politics are often conveyed through absence and the immaterial. He lets ghosts do his bidding. There are spectres haunting Thailand, and it is no accident that the monkey ghosts of Uncle Boonmee reside in the jungles of Isaan, a land which, during the Cold War, became a stronghold for communist insurgents. It was there that the ‘people’s war’ was launched in 1965 by the Thai Patriotic Front, beginning with targeted political assassinations before escalating into outright warfare. The guerrillas were 12,000 strong at their peak, commanding enormous influence over the region – spurred initially by Chinese Maoists but evolving over time into a distinctly ruralist, native movement. Jungles and caves were their base of operations; in Uncle Boonmee, Apichatpong excavates these spaces and their secrets.

Boonmee laments that both his kidney disease and his being haunted by ghosts are the result of bad karma. ‘I killed too many communists’ he confesses. As he succumbs to his illness, in a cave not unlike a communist hideout, Boonmee dreams of a future in which an ‘authority capable of making anybody disappear’ rules the city. Apichatpong sets this monologue against photographs of young soldiers – like Boonmee in his communist-killing days – as they pose with captured monkey ghosts. In doing so, he suggests that photography and ghosts have something in common: they are both prostheses for trauma. Note how Cathy Caruth defines the term: ‘the event is not assimilated or experienced fully at the time, but only belatedly in its repeated possession of the one who experiences it. To be traumatized is precisely to be possessed by an image or event’.

Memoria employs its own prosthesis. Jessica is possessed by a sound, a ‘rumble from the core of the earth’. She insists on these elemental descriptions – earth, metal, water – because they lend some materiality to her phantom pain. Unable to represent a ‘genuine memory’ in Colombia (which we might take to mean a historical or political one), Apichatpong has instead constructed a film around the incomprehensibility of trauma, where, like fungal infections on the skin of an orchid, the symptoms are visible but not the disease itself.

‘Trauma is the name for an impossible history,’ Caruth writes in Trauma: Explorations in Memory. Which is to say, it is not history at all. What it reproduces is not actuality or reality but rather the very ‘unrepresentability’ of those things: an infinitely productive paradox that in Memoria begs the question, what exactly are we watching? In this way, Apichatpong’s film – which we might subtitle ‘Explorations in Trauma’ – is more bruise than blunt force. It is frustrating to see the director succumb so fully to the pitfalls of ‘trauma’ when he has otherwise elided them with such grace, with his historical ghosts and mythic monsters, his magic and his realism.

Most telling is the fact that the young Hernán is still capable of recreating Jessica’s sound, using a filmmaker’s library of sound effects, no less – an archive of historical artifacts. That the process of recreating trauma is displaced through a metaphor for that very process is perhaps another way of illustrating trauma’s unrepresentability, but what exactly does this offer the viewer? We are ultimately left watching a man flip switches on a soundboard. Trauma does nothing to resolve the tensions, gaps and transgressions of history. It is another name for a stalemate: two kings stuck in a box step. Perhaps this is what makes the encounter between Jessica and the old Hernán – between trauma and history – so unfulfilling. To even graze the tip of Hernán’s finger would be electrifying, enlightening. But sadly, he takes Jessica’s hand, not ours.

Read on: Pierre Brocheux, ‘Reflections on Vietnam’, NLR 73.