MEKONG HOTEL (Apichatpong Weerasethakul)
By Robert Koehler
A sketch for the larger “Mekong Project,” which will include at least one other film, Apichatpong’s work dances between time zones, physical spaces, bodies and finally, the Mekong itself, a wide swathe of drifting water whose flow forms a steady, epochal background for several, lightly handled dialogues. Some of these involve chats between a woman named Phon and a guy named Tong, whose dog is eaten by a ghost called a “Pob ghost,” a unique Thai apparition that can infect its human hosts with the desire to gobble flesh. Ghosts are real in Apichatpong’s cinema, and they take on extremely carnal, almost Grand Guignol effect: At times, they munch on raw meat (it looks a bit like ground steak tartar), but the mood is never close to horror. Rather, Mekong Hotel is pitched more to the tone of a reverie, made even lilting by an element which Apichatpong has never deployed before: Constant music on the soundtrack, written and performed by classical guitarist Chai Bhatana, who describes on-screen to the director that it’s something like “Spanish blues.” It’s perhaps the right kind of music to listen to in order to salve the pain of the recent terrible floods in Thailand, which effectively shut down the country during the end of last year. The scars of the flood haunt the film—an exposed tree trunk at one point appears in the middle of the giant river, reminding one and all about the disaster. Many of the scenes offer glimpses of what could be a much larger film to come. But Mekong Hotel is more rounded than a mere sketch: The spectre of the flood gives way in the astonishing closing image to the river as a field of play and continuity. In a grand long shot from the hotel balcony, several people race around on SkiDoos, carving curves and circles and paisley patterns in the gray-blue current, and then a long boat emerges at the bottom of the frame, cutting a straight line against the current, an arrow of tradition intersecting with the whirls of modernity. It one-ups the magnificent river race sequence in Antonioni’s Il grido, where race boats are seen cutting lovely lines on the surface of another gray river, a set of images that draw great beauty from the interplay between the infinite flow of the river, the shift and shape of the water created by the playful boats. Apichatpong’s final image expands on this, with boats of the past and present brought together in an integrated pattern, history unfolding as the river flows past.