In Kim Quy Bui’s melancholy tale of the rites of death it’s almost as if it’s the living who haunt the dead. Contrasting the earthiness of traditional ritual with the clinical cremations of the city, Memoryland (Miền ký ức) both contemplates the effects of ongoing urbanisation and the perhaps undue stress placed a peaceful afterlife rather than on finding happiness in this one. Even so, it’s a sense of absence that eventually haunts the nation in the creation of a literal ghost town with names and numbers written on walls in much the same way as the documents of deed printed on the exterior of paper houses intended to be burned for the dead.
The film opens however with a little magical realism as a woman’s soul gets up out of her body and makes its exit if not quite from this world. Surrounded by flies and rotted fruit, Me leaves an unheard message for her son that she would like to be buried in the vicinity of her house so that she can still look after it but the son has been away too long and knows nothing of traditional rituals. “Everyone is cremated in the city” he tells a confused neighbour who has already dug a grave for her while keeping half an eye on the mounting costs, the itemised bill including listings for shamans and multiple days of mourning he wonders if it would be alright to shave.
Death is indeed an expensive business. One young man makes his living selling coffins and burial plots for a hefty price in which you’re even charged rent for storing remains. Frightened of what decisions may be made after his death, the neighbour later plans a funeral for himself and his wife prepared to pay a princely sum for the guarantee of dignity in death which his wife quite understandably describes as ridiculous. Yet there’s something in his words that only soil can nurture the soul in the earthiness of its embrace in contrast with the icy mechanical doors that draw closed across a coffin before it is assaulted on all sides by tightly controlled flames with only another sign across them listing a name and a date of death lest the now anonymous ashes be confused.
Meanwhile some years previously a man is killed in a construction accident that neatly symbolises the literal dangers of urbanisation leaving his devastated wife numbed to the point of catatonia. Her husband’s family refuse to accept the quietude of her grief, suggesting that as she is still young and pretty, a childless widow at 30, she may plan to cut her losses and try again with someone new. The wife however remains loyal if over identifying with a female pig she believes longs for male companionship even as a widowed neighbour reminds her that boars and men are each scarce in this rapidly depleting environment. Eventually she travels to the city and takes her rituals with her, lodging with a middle-aged painter to whom she becomes a new muse, but discovers only loneliness and disappointment. She burns paper effigies of cars, homes, and even a replacement wife for her late husband but has no life of her own, a ghost in the frame once again abandoned longing for connection with something that is only now a memory existing in a different place and time.
The neighbour’s wife tells her children that they’ve got an air conditioner and wireless internet so they needn’t worry when they visit, but it remains unclear whether they do or not. The traditional houses in the traditional village are falling apart, distant messages on the radio asking children to come before they collapse but in the end each is only a space of emptiness, no different from the cemetery the widow walks through with its houses for the dead or that encountered by the painter in his visit to the other world walking between paper houses laid out in much the same fashion. They are each for sale, a name and phone number of a descendent penned on the wall though it seems unlikely anyone is going to buy. Inhabited only by memory these now empty buildings belong to another land in their own ways haunted but perhaps more by the living than the dead.
Memoryland screened as part of this year’s Five Flavours Film Festival and is available to stream in Poland until 4th December.
Original trailer (English subtitles)