The link between technology and recall––its storage, playback, and loop––is stronger than ever, as we emerge from a time of almost exclusively mediated interactions. As more and more of our lives are taking place in digital worlds, our recollections are following suit. A recent spate of films––Charlotte Wells’s Aftersun (2022), Kogonada’s After Yang (2021), and Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Memoria (2021)––address this phenomenon directly, each proposing that technology no longer merely aids, but rather constitutes memory itself.
Drawing from varied genre conventions, these three films address the convergence of the mnemonic and mechanical, progressively escalating the degree to which remembrance is outsourced. Instead of a formal introduction to her world, Charlotte Wells opens Aftersun with an abstract evocation in which memory and camera are one, cultivating a sense of hazy, glitched-out nostalgia. Transitions between scenes are punctuated by the sound of a camcorder’s rewinding tape, as images of a child’s summer are dismantled into lattices. Dizzying assemblages of time fracture and distort under the strain of digitization. Throughout Aftersun, early digital recording equipment, with all its constitutive warping and distortion, appears as a superimposable metaphor for human recall in all its frailty.
Aftersun serves as the most accessible introduction to this new vision of digital memory, as the camcorder should be immediately recognizable to most viewers. The film follows Sophie (Frankie Corio as a child and Celia Rowlson-Hall as an adult), who desires to find closure in that aftermath of her father Calum’s (Paul Mescal) implied suicide. The film intersplices high-definition scenes of their fleeting summer holiday at a Turkish resort with the grainy footage recorded throughout the trip. Blurring the line between imperfect reconstruction and speculative fabrication, Sophie traverses disparate strands of remembrance looking for a moment of elusive reconciliation. Alongside her, we look at Calum’s memory through his own eyes. The digital video of the Panasonic NV-DS77’s signature washed-out look betrays an inherently low-quality medium which, like our own memories, deteriorates over time. Imperfect gaps of recollection, traversing the space between us and others, are filled by the pixelated video. The format’s media preservation is memory preservation and attempts to save our old home videos defies the incomplete, ephemeral nature of the medium. These videos are given meaning retroactively in Aftersun, through Calum’s ambiguously tragic fate. The camcorder is transformed into a lossy-compressed map of his consciousness. Searching for answers in an imperfect medium, Aftersun’s mini-DV scenes utilize technology to underpin the limitations of memory, rather than augment it. Corrupted digital and analog footage stands in for the fraying of synaptic nerves and vice versa.
In Korean-American video essayist Kogonada’s After Yang—a minimalist sci-fi adaption of Alexander Weinstein’s short story “Saying Goodbye to Yang”— “outsourced memories” take on a much more extreme and literal meaning. When their second-hand android Yang (Justin H. Min) fatally malfunctions, Jake (Colin Farrell), Kyra (Jodie Turner-Smith), and their adopted daughter Mika (Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja) struggle to fill the void left behind by their empathetic if inscrutable companion. A distraught Jake embarks on a quest to restore Yang. With the android no longer under warranty and thus doomed for replacement, Jake gains access to his memory bank through a series of illicit visits to underground technicians and android specialists. Rummaging through Yang’s core, a technician discovers that unbeknownst to the family—and against factory regulations—he has been recording six second clips from each day of his life and splicing them together into a kaleidoscopic makeshift consciousness. In Kogonada’s hands, what could’ve easily been a metaphor for the nefarious ways corporations extract data from their users is transformed into a key set piece in a narrative about technology’s capacity to re-spiritualize the present. The android’s memory serves as both a totalizing framing device for the film and as its constitutive emotional flashpoint, a final gift proffered from beyond the digital grave.
For Jake, who wanders through Yang’s databank via a pair of augmented reality glasses, the android’s memories (and thus self) appear as a series of fragmented, yet intertwined clusters, visualized as constellations, forests, and root systems. This foray into digitized memory affords the disaffected husband and father a novel point of access to pivotal events in his and his family’s life. Through Yang’s eyes, he finds the world dazzlingly recontextualized. Arguably, Kogonada’s film is less about speculative forms of media and mediation to come, as it is a science fictional recontextualization of technologies that permeates the here and now. Our desires, memories, and past selves are disembodied via discretization and given a life of their own online. We inhabit a world that is haunted by the dizzying assemblage of our digital doubles, raising the troubling question of which is our “authentic” self.
This obsessive fantasy of authenticity is playfully deconstructed in After Yang. Pixelated screens, car windows, silt-strewn aquarium tanks, distended mirrors, tinted glass, the interplay of light and shadow—all these overlay, at times occlude, and always mediate the camera’s line of sight. Direct unobstructed access—to the world, identity, one’s past—is not only rare, but appears beside the point in Kogonada’s universe surfeit with digital and analog doubles. Mika’s link to her Chinese heritage is retroactively constructed and reinforced via Yang, whose racialized appearance and knowledge of Chinese are programmed features rather than an inherited cultural or phylogenetic memory. Bonding with him over questions of authentic identity, Yang’s romantic interest, the former barista Ada, struggles with her identity as a clone, her sense of self always seemingly constituted in relation to an earlier, now absent other. What takes precedence? The original or the technologically mediated echo?
In answering this question, After Yang appears to discard the rhetoric of primacy in favor of reconsidering memory and its technological mediation as entwined dynamic processes that co-constitute each other. Yang’s reconstituted memories not only fill in the gaps where Jake’s memory fails, but both mediate and reshape Jake’s interactions with the world around him. As philosopher of technology Bernard Stiegler writes, when dealing with memory—its various technical props, extensions, and prosthetics—there is always necessarily a “default of origin.” As the film progresses, Yang’s memories begin to seamlessly alternate and overlap with Jake’s and Kyra’s, each serving as the other’s ghostly latent image. In Kogonada’s conceptual framework, life’s technological expression appears just as real and pressing as the original––the two indispensable to, and thus indistinguishable from, the other. Man and technology are destined, as the film’s final shot implies (showing Mika abruptly break into a cover of Lily Chou-Chou’s “Glide”) “I wanna be just like a melody … a simple sound like in harmony.”
For Weerasethakul in Memoria, technical sources harbor the liberating capacity to bend time and space. The film is a meditative exploration of the breakdown of memory, mimicking the asynchronicity and fragmentation found within both technological regimes and the human mind. Jessica (Tilda Swinton) is a Scottish orchid farmer in Bogotá. The erasure of personal and collective memory both locally (Colombia) and globally, slowly reveals itself through Jessica’s quest to identify a mysterious sonic boom within a city gripped by amnesia. Weerasethakul’s obfuscated, circular narrative mirrors Jessica’s own uncertainty of both the sound source and, eventually, her memories.
Time distends, collapses, then doubles back on itself, as Jessica begins to recall ambiguous events to which she has no personal relation. In our current moment, technology has severed events from their spatio-temporal coordinates, creating an ongoing process of information overload, disorientation, and time-sickness. As media theorist Friedrich Kittler famously noted, digital media’s defining feature is its ability to manipulate time––to reprocess it, store it, slow it down, and even reverse it––complicating and, if not altogether, abolishing historical time. In Weerasethakul’s Colombia, six-thousand-year-old fossilized girls, future bound aliens, and the recently dead coexist in an eternal present. In what emerges as an overarching metaphor for the film itself, a worker at an industrial refrigerator plant smiles at Jessica, points at a floral cooler, and says “in here, time stops.” Memoria’s magical realist scenarios feel particularly intuitive to a modern sensibility, because they’re rooted in metaphors of data storage and transmission rather than fairytale. For instance, Jessica’s ability to read the memories of others is likened to that of an operating system reading “a hard disk.”
Jessica comes to embody memories that are not her own––much like we do in doomscrolling loops, watching clips from wars on the other side of the world or falling into the trap of online discourse. We identify with and are transported into varying times and spaces that have been decontextualized. There is a magical realist element implicit in that phenomena that is both frightening and freeing. The more we offload memory into the digital realm, the more we are gripped with a sense of cultural vertigo. Sustained not by reflection as much as blind feedback, digital discourse networks and the computational algorithms that sustain them, both dislocate and perpetuate us. Much like in Memoria—where a man rushes across the street pursued by assailants only he can see, or where a dentist dies in one woman’s memory but is resurrected in another’s—our reality is composed of increasingly fragmented, isolated experiences.
When new technologies continue to promise total recall at the cost of disorientation, art offers us new perspectives—both uplifting and estranging—on how to re-engage with our externalized memories, desires, selves. More and more of ourselves, in discretized form, traverse undersea cables. All three of these films bring some of these pieces back to us, transformed.