Song Fang's "Memories Look At Me" is a tough one: while the filmmaker's debut is a lovely, pleasant experience, it's extremely difficult to make the movie sound at all appealing. A large percentage of it takes place in a single apartment, with each dialogue-heavy scene generally composed of a single static shot; the camera with a view of either someone's side or back, but rarely their front. There's no plot, arcs, narrative thrust, or anything of the kind. Party poopers will quickly decry that "nothing happens" and, honestly, they wouldn't be wrong. But mysteriously, the intensely slice-of-life 'Memories' works, and its comforting nature and attention to real moments make for an especially soothing experience.
With a role in the remarkable "Flight of the Red Balloon" by auteur Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Song is no stranger to acting and here takes the spotlight as the lead. The movie opens with a pensive stare out of the window of a locomotive, the train en route to her parents’ house — through this look, we get the vague feeling that something rather serious has happened in her life and she’s returning to the comfort of home. As soon as she arrives the film settles, the director throwing an anchor and reveling in the security of the uneventful existence her parents live in: Song chitchats with her middle-aged parents, cleaning their ears and plucking superfluous hairs while a variety of other relatives (grandma, brother, niece) add their particular flavor to the household. It’s hard to say how much time exactly passes in the film, as aside from a brief voyage to a close friend’s abode (complete with a tour of the town with details as to how the locale has evolved, for better or worse), most of the days blend into each other seamlessly.
Despite the mundane conversations about things like the blooming chili plants on a nearby windowsill, the contentment is infectious. It’s easy to get lost in the movie, even easier to tune out — and again, that shouldn’t be read as a slander against ‘Memories’ as the movie goes above and beyond in conveying the feeling of pleasant family life. Song avoids any sort of major drama, which is most impressive because the nature of her visit is so mysterious — surely she has something she’s running away from or means to talk about, but she never unleashes it upon anyone (read: there are no histrionic breakdown scenes).
Still, the director has an interesting way of hinting at the protagonist’s mental state in the midst of the home-sweet-home peace. In terms of camera aesthetics, the cinematography is serviceable, but Song veers away from making the small apartment feel at all cramped — instead, the filmmaker uses the soundtrack to give some contrast to the great warmth found in each conversation. Nearly every scene is accompanied by wild noise from outside the building — heavy traffic, children screaming and the like — which is buried in the background but noticeable enough to add a subtle layer of dissimilitude to the film. It’s not overpowering, but it seems to hint that something inescapable is troubling the lead. This stylistic choice begets a nagging feeling, but never frustrating — considering the otherwise affable atmosphere in the domicile, we can’t blame her for staying mute about her personal problems. The director seems to be questioning her character’s behavior in this way, wondering if burying unspoken feelings with nostalgia and quality time with loved ones (or just running away from them) will actually absolve any deep-down dilemmas.
It’s a simple and not exactly profound film (though the closing shot has a perplexing amount of strength to it), but you’d be hard-pressed to find another movie so legitimately solacing without being a guilty pleasure at the same time. A tiny micro-indie with small aims but great intention, “Memories Look At Me” is a cozy experience and an assured entrance by Song Fang as a director. [B]