Film Review: Mekong 2030 (2020)


The world is not short on Indochinese iconography. From 19th century fetishism about the landscape as evidenced in the writing of Rudyard Kipling, to the more contemporary Lonely Planet bucket list money shots, the Indochina region has always harboured much allure and mysticism that beguiles so many visitors. Amidst images of Buddhist monks walking in single files, golden spires and earthy landscape tones, the cultures of the different countries that have emerged from the tributaries of the Mekong River are often viewed in overlapping hues. The omnibus film Mekong 2030 draws those lines quite clearly and forms a revealing study of the physical and spiritual relationships the different communities have with the river, largely divergent.

Mekong 2030 is a project initiated by the Luang Prabang Film Festival and supported by a number of charitable foundations, including the Mekong River Commission. Five filmmakers from each of the Mekong-fed territories ruminate the future of the Mekong river, one of Asia’s most vital waterways, as well as its players, its threats and its villains. The results are delightfully distinct, not just culturally but also in terms of the artistic voice. For its future-referencing title, only one entry valiantly attempted a sci-fi reimagining of the future – The Che Brothers from Laos, by Anysay Keola. On second thought, 2030 is actually not too far away. Some of the ‘air-screen’ touch functionalities seen in The Che Brothers might still be fiction by then. Thailand’s Anocha Suwicharkornpong finds a more conceptual and impressionistic entry point into the Mekong through the thoughts of a modern artist about to launch an exhibition. Myanmar’s entry The Forgotten Voices of the Mekong by Sai Naw Kham, is a rather didactic environmentalist plea for conservation, probably the least conceptually ambitious of the batch. Cambodia’s Soul River by Kulikar Sotho imagines a future with a apocalyptic finishing, complete with parched land, barren trees and a muddy look all over. The Unseen River, the most meditative of the lot, draws you into a hypnosis with its spiritual contemplations on the pristine river scape and the pockets of life emerging around it.

The Mekong River is often characterised by its muddy appearance and by either coincidence or visual deliberation, the five short films and their visual palettes seem to blend in with it into an earthy mix, even though each film bears a somewhat dominant colour tone. Soul River keeps it literally grounded with its soil-coloured palette and a vivid sight of muddied waters. The Che Brothers keep our eyes trained on the khaki-clad lead character Xe as he navigates along sandy pathways in a mission to save his mother. The Forgotten Voices of the Mekong remind us of identity through the distinct indigo tribal clothing the villagers wear with indigo symbolising integrity and sincerity in some cultures. The colour white underwrites much of the visual identity in The Line which sets out to reduce and deconstruct commonly-known ideas and elements. The Vietnamese obsession with the colour green is well-documented with the Scent of the Green Papaya being a case in point. Pham Ngoc Lan’s The Unseen River perpetuates this partiality with its not-so-subtle chromatic clues.

Other than pockets of choreographed kicks and punches in The Che Brothers, much of the omnibus finds its resonance on the philosophical and spiritual. Many of the filmmakers, either by chance or by cultural proximity, find similar relationships with the Mekong River, often imbued with a sense of larger omnipotent forces at play as well as a sense of karma. In relation to this, Kulikar Sotho’s Soul River is somewhat a moralistic tale about greed and symbiosis. An ancient Khmer statue is uncovered and two men made a pact to trade it for money and split the proceeds. Drifting along on the river on a quaint boat with a straw-laced wagon-styled canopy, the two men (and the wife of one of the men) engage in chain of road-trip conversations but mostly centred around monetising their treasure find. While the banter is sometimes comic and sometimes grating, the film is periodically punctuated with verbal narration that on one-hand enriches the film’s conceptual dimensions but on the other straight-jackets the film into something akin to scripture re-enactment. Kulikar’s directorial strokes appear more confident here compared to the more scripted attempt in her feature The Last Reel, as she manages to draw some earnest performances from her cast.

For an underrepresented voice in Southeast Asian cinema, the Laotian segment of the omnibus, The Che Brothers, takes an imaginative brave leap from the traditional mould with actors dressed in computer game-styled battle gear and science indiscriminately exploited in the hands of villains. There is even American intervention in the form of a PPE-clad lab worker explaining an impending danger that sounds like you just switched TV channels sitting in a hotel room in Vientiane. What’s also delightful is how filmmaker Anysay Keola frames this make-believe drama in Che Guevaran wisdom, a nod to Laotian nostalgia for the revolutionary icon.

As the story goes, Xe, the lead character, upon returning to his old village, finds himself caught in a battle between his sister and brother over the commodification of his mother’s blood. Apparently, her blood could be sold to an American corporation for the purposes of developing a much-needed cure for a plague. The extend to which life imitates art these days is not even funny anymore. Underneath all its ambition, the film is a fairly even-handed attempt at negotiating the boundaries between human drama and that of a technological thriller, pretty much a Black Mirror formula. However, the film falters in dealing with the dualities in some of the characters. For instance, between being a villain and a next-of-kin to Xe, the persona transition of Xe’s brother is sometimes clumsy or lacking in accents.

The Burmese segment by Sai Naw Kham opens with a soul-stirring aerial view of a vegetated mountain that screams ‘mother earth’, juxtaposed with a humming melody from a tribal chorus. Indeed, the segment has a conservational slant to the film. The lines between fiction and documentation are blurred in the film, not least through the use of actual indigenous people as cast members. Like many other films about indigenous identity such as the 2015 Taiwanese film Panay, The Forgotten Voices of the Mekong is faithful to the genre with familiar tropes of urbanisation threatening nature and tradition, and the return of the prodigal son who wants the villagers to trade their hoes to be hoes for industrial money. The film then takes a karmic turn when one of the village girl [spoiler alert] dies from drinking river water contaminated by the mining discharge. The rest is rather predictable. For being the film that most directly addresses the environmental degradation of the Mekong River, the segment actually feels like a sobering jolt from the trippy or phantasmagorical quality of the other segments. That’s not say the segment is too vanilla. In fact, the endearing cast, headlined by a gutsy granny who dares to defy the industrialists, is the secret sauce that holds our attention to the story.

My favourite scene from Thai segment The Line was a rather nondescript one with an art gallery intern turning up for work, and attempting to connect with her minders over a news report about some creature being caught (very likely in the Mekong River) near her hometown. In the exchanges transpiring between the gallery team, one gets a microscopic study of behavioural shading between manager and intern, that could give many art gallery workers a sense of déjà vu. Beyond that, much of Anocha Suwicharkornpong’s film is a discordant cacophony of visual or aural propositions. The Line follows an artist as she puts the final touches on her exhibition about animism and Henri Bergson’s concepts of space and duration. Shots of the Mekong River take centre stage in the artist’s installation video, jarringly paired with a voiceover that sounds like a Mainland Chinese version of Alexa, talking about her identity and relationships, and on another level, conveying the idea of cultural invasion. It’s like the familiar feeling of being at a tourist attraction but hearing fast and furious Mandarin spoken all around you. One can see the attempt of changing the angle of discourse around the river through experimentation with form but it gets less interesting when the perspectives presented all seem to be like those of the filmmaker’s.

Continuing in the dual-story, dual couple format of his award-winning short Blessed Land, in The Unseen River, filmmaker Pham Ngoc Lan juxtaposes the story of Mrs Nguyen, a middle-aged woman trying to find her old lover with the story a young couple seeking a cure for insomnia in a gaudy and kitschy temple that looks like how a Hollywood set designer would recreate the exotic and mystical Far East. Inspired by Siddartha, a Herman Hesse book about how one of Buddha’s contemporaries found enlightenment in a different way, the film is both visually intriguing as it is spiritually disarming. Pham displays an acute sensitivity to rhythm and form in his choice of shots and sequences. From the dog fidgeting in the water to the disembowelling of a fish by the river to the visual assault that is the room of a 1000 buddhas to the contemplative river interludes, it feels like an immersive, whimsical dream sequence with hidden codes to crack. Pham also wears his penchant for visual symbolism and iconography on his sleeve with portions of the mise en scène revealing a great degree of orchestration, such as the wide zooming shot of Mrs Nguyen dwarfed by the defunct hydroelectric plant and the younger monk strategically positioned in front of a towering religious statue and a cluster of lotuses. At times, the film seems overly self-reflective with its multitude of visual or narrative cross references but none take away the observation that The Unseen River anchors the concept of time, memories and connections most strongly and is rightly positioned as a fitting end to the series.

Review by Jeremy Sing

Mekong 2030 will be the opening film of the upcoming SeaShorts Film Festival, happening from 12 to 20 of September. You can get your festival pass here. 

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