‘Mekong Hotel’ displays art of subtlety in cinema

By Sam Flancher

Some might be hesitant to label Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s new film, “Mekong Hotel,” a documentary, but that’s because it defies easy characterization.

This meditative, hour-long piece is filled with bits of staged action, as well as supernatural and mythical references. While fiction does play a part in this quiet masterpiece, the film documents real feelings, cultures, ideas and customs. Characters and subjects quickly become one as the film gives cursory attention to everything from modernization to traditional Thai superstitions.

Set in a hotel along the shores of the slowly flooding Mekong River in Thailand, the film opens with a musician practicing his original melodies on a classical guitar. Weerasethakul is present in the scene and interviews the man on camera. They talk briefly until the music begins to dominate as the musician moves effortlessly along the fret board. His calm, meandering melodies are present for nearly the entire film and help establish the film’s fascination with mood.

The film continues with a series of conversations between people at this mostly vacant hotel. A man is seen looking out on the river when a woman approaches. The two talk about the man’s dead dog, and it is decided that a devious pob ghost is responsible for its death. In Thai lore, the pob ghost is thought to infest a victim’s body and feast on its entrails. Such traditional myths factor heavily into Weerasethakul’s other work, including “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives” and “Tropical Malady,” so it’s no surprise that they’re presented matter-of-factly here.

Weerasethakul gives equal dramatic weight to conversations about ghosts as he does to the rising tides of the Mekong. Such even-handedness gives the film its quiet, meditative quality. It’s a deceptively dense work with a blend of dramatic and thematic elements from disparate places imbedded in the serenity of its images.

Aesthetically, “Mekong Hotel” is stunning in its subtlety. The camera remains static throughout, refusing to break the rigid beauty of each composition. Characters are often framed looking out over the river, which ties every conversation to the landscape. Such a connection places the film within the context of Thai culture, a constant reminder of its origins.

The film’s final shot—a long, uninterrupted take observing a group of jet skiers in the river—is without compare. Weerasethakul lets the action develop, and eventually a much slower moving boat eases into the frame. A deceptively simple wide shot becomes entirely complex. There’s a strange beauty in the interaction between the jet skis and the new, slow-moving arrival. It’s a clash of technologies, generations and paces of life.

At one point during the film, the music stops wafting through the soundtrack and the musician reveals it to be a rehearsal. The moment is a reminder of the realities in the film. Its supernatural elements are derived from cultural beliefs, not fiction. The quiet rhythms of “Mekong Hotel” tie together its understated thematic concerns.