Mekong Hotel (2012): Thai Apichatpong Weersathaku’s Follow-Up to Uncle Boonmee

By Patrick McGavin

Two years after his haunting and mysterious Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives captured the Cannes Fest top award, the Palme d’Or, Thai auteur Apichatpong Weersathakul returns with his peculiar and entrancing ghost story, Mekong Hotel.

The new film, a 61-minute reverie, is a quiet distillation of the artist’s preoccupations and mode of working. It is a deliberately smaller and self-contained work compared to “Uncle Boonmee,“ or his previous titles, “Syndromes and a Century,“ or “Tropical Malady.“ According to the director, it is a prelude to a much more ambitious work, provisionally titled “Mekong Project.”

The story is opaque and mysterious, as it subtly shifts between a kind of memoir or reminiscence and playful act of self-revelation. Apichatpong explores different connections, political and personal, to his art, considering different angles of personal address and fictional storytelling.

Apichatpong is a hybrid artist who possesses a hypertrophy of influences. His work combines and plays off various disciplines, especially visual art, sculpture and painting as the organizing principles of his meditative style. Including to his distinctive body of work as a filmmaker, he has made video art and installation. This film takes from all of those.

He also photographed the movie. His manner of working is closer to a poet or painter; his solitude accounts for the movie’s stillness and hypnotically observational style. The whole point of movies is that they move, and Apichatpong seems intent on finding his own paradigm, or even idiom, that is something continually changing the nature of images, sound and movement as a movie corollary to painting.

The action unfolds on the eponymous hotel located on the river in Northeast Thailand where many of the director’s films have been set. He has assembled a group of actors to stage a series of rehearsals on a long-gestating script called “Ecstasy Garden.”

The director, who famously goes by the colloquial Joe because of his impossible to pronounce his name, pulls himself directly into the movie, placing himself on-camera, at the start, introducing a young guitarist whom he identifies as a friend, Chatchai Suban, with whom he reconnected after a long separation. The musician’s guitar is overlaid the soundtrack the balance of the film, a striking departure from Apichatpong’s other films, where music is very sparely deployed.

Without being too self-referential, “Mekong Hotel” breaks down the lines of demarcation between fiction and documentary, autobiography and reverie. In the standard disclaimer, he even says any connection between real characters and the story is “not coincidental.” Working with a very small crew and cast, he is casting out his own variations of a highly refined theme.

Many of the director‘s other films have overlapping two-part structures. Apichatpong intercuts between stories, one involving the charged dynamics between a mother and her daughter, vampires whose lust and need for human flesh carry different social and sexual implications. In the parallel movement, two young lovers, having converged on the river, find their connection threatened by the discovery the woman is perhaps an incarnation of a Pob ghost, a notorious flesh-eater.

With Apichatpong, his allusive, nonlinear and dreamy stories become a portal to embed yourself inside the layers or skin of his movies and understand and appreciate his work. In trying to disentangle the movie’s different layers and hall of mirrors distinctions between the real and the imagined, Apichatpong turns each episode into a meditation watching.

The camera rarely moves, shooting from a fixed position that records movement, space and light within the frame, and the conflict or power derives from the often contrasting emotions or feelings evoked. During one shot, the angle inside a hotel room provides another way to perceive distance and events with a window that looks out through an open stretch of the landscape.

Another great example of this is the remarkable closing sequence, a series of boats spinning in the water. Apichatpong uses duration and time to subtly contrast different emotional states, so that where very little appears to actually be happen, a closer look reveals the eddies and circles that result from boats’ own movements.

The two stories are sometimes hard to fully grasp or fully perceive, except for the director’s extremely rare gore sequences. Stories set in hotels almost invariably deal with exile and impermanence; Apichatpong threads some interesting political commentary, an off-shoot of “Uncle Boonmee,” about the contemporary consequences of prolonged war in Southeast Asia, communism and Laos’ brutal civil war that yielded a generation of political refugees and dissidents that only sharpened the political enmity between Thailand and Laos.

Interestingly, the movie’s hour-running time is perhaps incentive for those who have been resistant to Apichatpong’s entrancing though sometimes ascetic style. The movie is deliberately left incomplete, both in the divisions between the two stories and the unresolved questions the contradictory forms of realism present here. Apichatpong pulls it off, appending his essayistic style to questions of being and consciousness that is fresh, original and resonant.