Mekong Hotel is another quiet but deeply impressive drama set in Weerasethakul-Land, an increasingly strange landscape created by celebrated Thai avant garde filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul (Tropical Malady, Worldly Desires). For those who don't know Weerasethakul’s considerable body of work, Weerasethakul-Land is typically over-run with serene echoes of a troubled, carnal past that may or may not ever have existed.
Clocking in at 61 minutes, Mekong Hotel is Weerasethakul’s triumphal return to Cannes, just two years after his 2010 feature Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives won the Palme D’Or. As with Moonrise Kingdom and Wes Anderson, Mekong Hotel is nothing new from Weerasethakul. In his Thailand, hungry ghosts, reincarnated animals and frank but casual discussions of sex and violence just . . . happen, unobtrusively.
And that’s perfectly all right. Even when charting deceptively familiar territory, Weerasethakul keeps finding startling new dark corners of his characters’ collective unconsciousness to explore. Weerasethakul’s characters all dream of an eeriely mundane existence where the supernatural and the super-sexual collide. Weerasethakul-land itself is, after all, also a dream world, an imaginary place which is intensely familiar but also paradoxically soothing and jarring at once, making it all the more alien.
Like many of Weerasethakul’s other films, Mekong Hotel doesn’t have a linear narrative. Phon and Masato, two young lovers, meet and bond after Masato’s dog is devoured by a entrails-gobbling Pob ghost. That ghost happens to be Phon’s mother, who lives with her in a hotel room near the Mekong River. Over time, a series of elliptically represented events show us that the barrier separating the living from the dead doesn't exist (or at least, it's not located near the Mekong River).
The film’s acoustic guitar-centric score particularly accentuates Mekong Hotel’s otherworldly tranquility. Weerasethakul’s films aren’t really nightmares, though strange and gross things sometimes happen in them. Theoretically, watching a dowdy-looking woman munch on a pile of large intestines while another character prays in a separate corner of the room would be traumatic. But thanks to the film’s score, the scene is neither frightening nor gruesomemore a product of the pure dream logic governing Weerasethakul-Land.
Weerasethakul doesn’t judge Mekong Hotel’s characters, as events in his films always have a matter-of-fact mood to them. Things happen for reasons we don't understand, simply because this is the pace of life in his films. Thailand is Weerasethakul’s foremost concern, being the locus for Mekong Hotel’s impressionistic portrait of longing, both fulfilled and unrequited, and its most refreshingly beguiling protagonist.
Mekong Hotel is simultaneously breezy and dense, giving it an incantatory strength. Annotations certainly wouldn’t hurt any interpretation of the film’s series of anecdotal vignettes, like discussions of a Laotian refugee camp or another character’s third boyfriend (“It hurt my ass rather pleasurably.”). But they’re also not really necessary either. This is Weerasethakul-Land: happily, time and narrative logic as we know them don’t apply here.
Simon Abrams is a New York-based freelance arts critic. His film reviews and features have been featured in The Village Voice, Time Out New York, Slant Magazine, The L Magazine, The New York Press and Time Out Chicago. He currently writes TV criticism for The Onion AV Club and is a contributing writer at the Comics Journal. His writings on film are collected at the blog, Extended Cut.