Director/Screenplay/Producer/Photography – Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Music – Chai Batana. Production Company – Kick the Machine/Illumination Films/Arte France/La Lucarne.
Maiyatan Techaparn (Phon), Sakda Kaewbuadee (Tong), Chatchai Suban (Phon’s Mother), Apichatpong Weerasethakul (Himself), Chai Bhatana (Himself)
At a hotel on the Mekong River near the Thai border with Laos, two old school friends meet up after a long time where one of them plays guitar as they sit and reminisce. A couple, Phon and Tong, also meet at the hotel. His dog has been killed by a pob, a Thai ghost that eats entrails. The pob is Phon’s mother. Phon and Tong realise that they are lovers who have been reincarnated throughout time and have continued to meet up through successive lives.
Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul has become a critical darling among the film festival set with films like Blissfully Yours (2002), Syndromes and a Century (2006) and especially Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010), which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, as well as the subsequent Cemetery of Splendor (2015) and Memoria (2021). I have a mixed liking for a couple of Weerasethakul’s films – Tropical Malady (2004) and Uncle Boonmee – although the warning is that they, like Mekong Hotel, are from a decidedly non-commercial filmmaker and defy easy genre pigeonholing.
Mekong Hotel has the feel of a film that has been randomly composed – apparently the main story is one that Weerasethakul had floating around for a couple of decades. (Given that Weerasethakul doesn’t seem to concern himself with stories, that in itself probably says something). The film is not even feature length and only hails in at 56 minutes long. Furthermore, Weerasethakul gives the impression that much of the film was made in an improvisational manner with the frame of the story being he and old school friend Chai Batana meeting up after many years, where Weerasethakul has filmed the encounter and their reminisces and Chai’s guitar playing makes up the film’s soundtrack.
The problem with Apichatpong Weerasethakul is that he is capable of fine directorial effect – his other fantastic ventures have some intensely haunted moments – but has no storytelling sense, at least in terms of what we would expect for a ghost story/horror film. Now, I am not saying that Weerasethakul should immediately go and sign on to make the latest Asian horror film but a more traditional grounding in plot concerns would help him no end (and probably take his films to a wider audience). We can see here the ultimate failing of auteur theory – in that it allows individualistic directors to follow their proclivities but also that such freedom amplifies their faults, whereas a studio-backed production would force the scripts and films to be grounded in more traditional patterns.
Although it is not quite up there with Uncle Boonmee, Mekong Hotel has some fine haunted moments where we see the pobs devouring intestines, where we are not sure who is pob or who is human. The scenes where we realise that the leads are not neighbours at the hotel who have met and are tentatively attracted but lovers who have been continually reincarnated for 600 years is an effective surprise revelation.
That said, Mekong Hotel is utterly inert dramatically. The pobs never seem to do anything or have any point in the film. The reincarnated lovers realise who they are – but all that Weerasethakul does is leave them merely with the promise that they will meet up again in The Philippines in the next life. Maiyatan Techaparn’s mother Chatchai Suban is revealed as a pob but just spends the rest of her scenes narrating a story about how she was envious of the privileges granted to refugees who came across the border from Laos. Elsewhere, the film is focused in frustratingly long, static shots of people on the riverbank, sweeping up leaves and especially some five minutes plus of scenes of kids jet biking on the river at the end.
I could see someone taking the elements here – intestine devouring ghosts, lovers who realise they have successively been reincarnated throughout time – and assembling them into a strong and spooky ghost story. Contrarily, Weerasethakul leaves them as self-contained scenes not connected to one another in any way, rather than dramatically develop them out into anything. Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s films have intensely haunted moments but the dramatic inertia of Mekong Hotel tries one’s patience altogether.