Review: Mekong Hotel (2012)


Writing about the inimitable Apichatpong Weerasathakul is like dancing on a god’s altar with dirty feet: irreverent. Inside the acclaimed director’s head bubbles a mind that sews image, sound and text together in ways that deliver visceral punches. To try and capture the multitudes that arise within, and transform those feelings into words on a page, is a mission both foolish and impossible. Regardless... I will try.

With a runtime of 61 minutes, Mekong Hotel is evidently shorter—and hence less expansive—than his previous feature films, but one does not walk away from the cinema feeling any less dazzled. Apichatpong’s anchor questions of life, death, spirituality, and politics are just as present in this film. Each of these themes issues forth in sketches that, spliced together, seem to read more like an outline—a film essay draft, maybe, or a commentary on the patchiness of memory. Since memory is assuredly unreliable, we as audience members often move swiftly to fill in the gaps. This cursory nature is no doubt alienating; yet, we also cannot help but be seduced by the sweet promise of transgression.

Some of the film’s greatest moments occur in the spirit of transgression. The most obvious one, of course, is the camera’s fluid gear-shifts between lucid horror and serene indifference. Mekong Hotel explores the lives of a mother-daughter duo who, cursed with a supernatural appetite for flesh, are simply trying to get by in a space that is at once cozy and suffocating. While they have made a home for themselves within the area, the feebly populated riverside commune is also so close-knit as to deny them the space for transgression—even if their sins have already been distilled as necessity.

The one time a character directly encounters the act of transgressive horror, it is cut. The director’s persona literally intervenes via voiceover, chuckling at the character’s brutal fate, and then decides in a godlike sweep of the invisible hand to summon an encore. Is an encore a redoing or a resetting? This subtler but far more powerful act of transgression serves to remind the audience that film always resides in the liminal space between believing and disbelieving, between truth and fiction. Who is to say what did or did not happen? We have only our eyes and ears.

To that end, Apichatpong begins the film by having an onscreen discussion with the film’s only musician, whose plucky tunes embroider the entirety of Mekong Hotel. Sometimes it is there to draw you into its embrace and set your vivid, thumping heart along; other times, it interjects with its own dialogue and you snap back to the awareness of what illusions lie before you. It is a setup, it is all a setup: this is why Apichatpong returns, again and again, to converse with the actor-characters at various junctures of the film.

Are we straddling supernatural dimensions? Are we watching actors rehearsing their lines? Or are we all just figments of Apichatpong’s imagination? We may never know.

One thing, however, is for sure: we have all gathered to hear stories about the stately Mekong whilst its presence haunts us tentatively from the shadows. From the river came the Laotian refugees and from whence they departed for greener pastures, kicking up a gust of jealousy in locals. A nameless visiting princess had once arrived by boat. Elsewhere along the same glorious stretch, waters have exceeded their banks, rather transgressively, and swept homes and families away.

As a water body that winds through six countries, the Mekong can be said to be both a source of diversity and conflict. Everyone wants a piece of its regality for themselves. Case in point: the Thai government’s bamboo boat project, yet another mortal attempt to overcome the body of unimaginable geographical prestige. This project is briefly discussed in the film before the camera submits to lengthier cuts of the river in its grand repose.

“A floating tree emerges. Then a second one. A third and a fourth. And so on… A river appears in a garden.” Commandeered by this singular reading, Mekong Hotel’s message becomes crystal clear. It is a poetic treatise on the quiet dominion of a river. The river gives and the river takes. A final pink-hued shot of motorboats carousing its surface as a traditional raft wends its way northwards invites us all to meditate upon the fact our presence on the life is not a god-given right but, in truth, an unworthy honour.

Mekong Hotel was screened at the Asian Film Archive's (AFA) Oldham Theatre last month as part of the AFA's 'A Fear of Monsters' screening series.

Review by Eisabess Chee

Eisabess is based in Singapore but her heart is always already in another universe, preferably fictional. Will write for films and food.

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