Memories, Film, and Finding Comfort in the Unexplained

“The difference between film and memory is that films are always false. They are composed of a series of scenes. But memories mix truth and lies. They appear and vanish before our eyes.”

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“Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” Bi Gan, 2018

How is one supposed to convey the subjectivity of memory through a medium such as film? How is one meant to convey the indescribable feeling of being in a dream? An unspoken truth about film is that it’s not reality, and it never will be. A film can evoke certain emotions and thoughts that are assuredly genuine, but there are some facets of the human mind that are impossible to replicate with a camera.

So filmmakers are left with a few choices. They can remain safely in the “tried and true” zone of film, understanding their limitations but not doing anything particularly revolutionary with that information. They can try their best to convey the intangible, reaching beyond the established and into a far less traveled land of opportunity. Or, they can know their limitations and use them to their advantage, exploiting the audience’s understanding of how film exists with rules that are completely separate from reality.

It’s not hard to find examples of that first choice, as they of course make up the majority of film and television. Don’t get too far up on your high horse, though. Playing in the bounds of familiarity is not necessarily a bad thing in film, and you don’t have to let your mind wander to formulaic studio movies to find films that do this. Hirokazu Kore-eda is a Japanese director who primarily makes films in the realm of humanism and realism. The truth is, a director with an empathetic view of the world who can rely on his audience having that same empathy doesn’t have to do something revolutionary to produce masterful work. This variety of filmmaking is built on trust: an intrinsic relationship between the filmmaker and the audience, invisible strands that connect the viewer to the characters onscreen. This doesn’t require any fancy or revolutionary tricks. Kore-eda writes dialogue that seems natural and real rather than the idealistic rhythm-focused dialogue that some films employ (which isn’t bad or wrong either — see Aaron Sorkin — but that’s a topic for another day), and he writes characters that are as flawed as any real person, with problems that would plague any real person.

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“After the Storm,” Hirokazu Kore-eda, 2016

In film, there are some things that the audience just don’t question. Yes, there’s the obvious suspension of disbelief that exists when a film is telling an audience about a humanoid alien superhero that can fly, but what about outside the bounds of genre film?

Even in an otherwise realistic drama, the laws of reality and time can be altered without a word of dissent from the audience. This can be as simple as the control filmmakers have on the way a timeline is displayed. A film is allowed to go back and forth in time as much as it likes, staggering timelines together, bringing forth memories and even past events that the characters we are following don’t recall. It’s generally not difficult for the audience to follow this sort of editing magic, even without the film explicitly warning them of the changes in the time period (through title cards or similarly obvious tactics). A film can reach inside of a character’s head and display their thoughts in a cinematic form, showing situations that never actually happened. With a bit of wit, a director can take into account the intangible plane that film exists on and the fact that audiences simply accept this incongruity to reality, and take it perhaps a step further.

Hong Sang-soo is a South Korean director who is no stranger to manipulations of time in his otherwise unassuming mumblecore drama films. The most obvious (and perhaps accessible) example of this in his vast filmography is “Right Now, Wrong Then,” a film that plays twice. The first hour of the film shows a complete story, and then it all starts over at the beginning and the events play out again, this time with subtle changes that influence the way it ends. Many critics and casual viewers of the film take it upon themselves to speculate wildly about the nature of this repetition of reality. Which of the two parts really “happened?” Is the second part just a dream? If so, whose dream is it? Is it a wish-fulfillment fantasy? If so, whose wish is being fulfilled? While it’s fun to ask these questions and speculate, and I know I did when I watched the film, I do believe the simplest answer, that on the surface, is the more interesting possibility.

That is: it’s a film. These characters do not exist in the reality that we do. Perhaps both of these versions of the events “really happened,” the first ever so slightly affecting the second. The characters don’t know that they are repeating a day over again like they would in a Groundhog Day situation, but what if somewhere in their subconscious is that first telling of the events, and that subtly influences the choices they make when faced with decisions for a second time?

In the second half of that film, there is a clear shift in tone from the very beginning, before any new decisions have really been made. The actors act with a palpable regret and longing that was seemingly absent the first time around. Where is that regret coming from? The characters don’t remember the first version of the events of the film. But those events still happened. Because it’s a film. These characters are controlled by forces that we in reality aren’t subject to. And yes, people will speculate and question the structure of “Right Now, Wrong Then,” but at the end of the day, they accept it and what it was able to do through the power of cinema.

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“Right Now, Wrong Then,” Hong Sang-soo, 2015

So it comes back to the original question. What about when a director wants to convey something that’s uniquely subjective, uniquely bound to a person’s own mind? When watching a film with flashbacks, there is rarely the consideration that what is being shown is directly jacked from the character’s mind. The idea of an “unreliable narrator” in film isn’t necessarily uncommon, but the near-necessity of a third-person narrative hinders the effect that that component could have. The truth about real memories is that they become fragmented, corrupted. They don’t always come together in a clean narrative, they instead float around our mind in a vague, hazy cloud. But when trying to construct a narrative, a storyteller is sure to dial this down to ensure it all comes together nicely, as their job is to, well, tell a story.

In “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” however, writer/director Bi Gan attempts to capture that subjectivity. The world that the main character lives in is the world inside his head. In the first half of the film, we are dragged through a series of the character’s memories. These memories are vague, fragmented, confusing. The character is trying desperately to piece together his thoughts in order to solve a mystery that has been plaguing his mind, but this seems more and more hopeless as the film progresses.

But in the final hour of the film, everything comes together! Or at least, that’s what we’re shown. But we know as an audience that this final sequence is not real. Even before events take place that would be impossible in our version of reality, it’s clear that we are watching what is merely a fantasy. When the character can’t piece together his memories, he settles for a dream. He knows it’s not real, we know it’s not real, but it brings him comfort, a sense of fulfillment. In this hour long sequence, everything comes together in a satisfying, logical way. Every person and event from his series of memories is reconstructed into one story. He no longer has to worry about the mystery that plagued him before, as he’s created his own answers. There’s a clear progression to this fantasy, a clear sense of reward for every action, a clear sense of coherence (a feeling multiplied by the decision to shoot this hour long sequence in a single shot), things that don’t generally happen in real life. Reality isn’t so satisfying. As an audience, this shift away from confusing reality to coherent fantasy can be likened to watching a film as an escape from the world. We know it’s not real, but we find comfort in it anyhow. There’s comfort in closure and conclusion.

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“Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” Bi Gan, 2018

By mirroring this true-to-life, unique feeling, Bi Gan succeeds at putting us in the shoes of the main character in a very unexpected way. We feel the confusion and frustration of memories not making sense, not coming together in the way we wish. We feel the bittersweet satisfaction of being offered a fantasy that makes it all make sense. Our thoughts meld with that of the character in a profound way, linking the film to our own intangible feelings, creating the intended effect that one might have initially thought impossible.

Similar methods are used in the film “A Land Imagined,” a Singaporean noir-thriller that also released in 2018. The film, helmed by Siew Hua Yeo, takes on a dream-like tone, calling into question whether events presented as flashbacks actually happened, and whether the current events can be believed. The film uses a vague timeline to its advantage, emphasizing a universal feeling of loneliness and isolation in its main characters. In a similar manner to “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” it’s not the actual mystery at the center of the film that matters the most. Piecing together the mystery with the vague clues that the film offers doesn’t simply serve as a satisfying resolution to the noir, it contextualizes an ever-present truth about the characters that the film follows. Like the characters, we the audience only realize how deceptive the images we are shown can be until it’s too late, until the characters disappear into their own dream and we follow them into it.

When the film concludes, do we have the right to be satisfied with what we just saw? Or are we obligated to let it haunt us in its darkness and ambiguity? The lingering effect of the film feels like an extension of the characters’ thoughts as it reaches into our own reality, our own mind. At the end of the day, we must simply accept what we don’t know, just as the characters do. And we must be comforted by the unknown.

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“A Land Imagined,” Siew Hua Yeo, 2018

It’s easy to lean into the belief that film is limited. Eternally flawed, even. Film will never show us the complete truth, it will never be able to fully immerse us in a character’s mind. There are things that are simply impossible for a film to achieve. And that’s all true, of course. Films are lies, or at least skew the truth at every moment. How a filmmaker deals with the intrinsic flaws of film varies wildly, and across that broad spectrum there doesn’t seem to be a wrong answer. The ultimate goal is to connect with the audience regardless of those flaws, and this can occur in unexpected ways. Why do we connect with an image onscreen that is overtly impossible in our world? Why do we accept extreme deviations from reality? How to we get past the flaws of both our own mind and the film we are watching?

Our minds are flawed, of course. Memories degrade and shatter. Dreams torment us. And when those flaws mesh in inexplicable, mysterious ways with the flaws inherently onscreen, it can create a deeper connection between the viewer and film. Thus, sometimes resolution of plot is irrelevant. Sometimes it goes deeper than simply the conclusion of a dramatic mystery. We might never have our questions answered, but at least we know that the characters are asking the same things, and we are comforted by the idea of not being alone, even if our company is only made up of fictional characters.

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“Still Walking,” Hirokazu Kore-eda, 2008

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