Even the most ardent Weerasethakul fans were perplexed by Mekong Hotel.
What makes a film a film? And beyond that, what differentiates a narrative feature from a documentary? Is length involved? The presence of narratives? Do there need to be characters? Does there have to be backstory? Do we require a conclusion?
The joy and frustration that come hand in hand with watching an Apichatpong Weerasethakul film are firmly attached to these questions, and never more so than with Mekong Hotel, a 61-minute experimental docudrama that somehow manages to incorporate ghosts, impossible romance, vampires and also real-life mother-daughter interaction.
The film, which debuted at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival (Weerasethakul’s follow-up after winning the Palme d’Or at in 2010 for Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives), is divisive at best. Even the most ardent Weerasethakul fans were perplexed by Mekong Hotel. The already distant Weerasethakul went full Kiarostami here, completely resisting close-ups as well as dynamic action, instead relying on landscape shots accompanied by acoustic guitar accompaniment.
Some have speculated that Mekong Hotel is the result of a film project that didn’t work out, while others think that it is a prelude to a forthcoming, more ambitious project. But though its flavor is slight, Mekong Hotel still carves out a place for itself in Weerasethakul’s oeuvre. His observations of a hotel, sitting on the river-border of Thailand and Laos, are both boring and profound, as is so much of life. With this film, Weerasethakul is asking the viewer to find the mystery in the mundanity before us.
And, once again, Weerasethakul’s own unique brand of tragic romance pierces through his film’s falsely mundane exterior. The hesitant romance at the center of the tale is a casual one between an ordinary man and woman. However, things turn once the audience learns that the woman’s mother has killed her child and that the woman the man is romancing is a ghost.
None of it makes a ton of sense, nor does it look especially beautiful. Weerasethakul’s unique style is to infuse the extraordinary (often inspired by Thai mythology) into the quotidian, and he does so with a particular focus here. It’s unique but also profoundly anticlimactic. But the point lies in that anticlimax; the amazing and the spiritual are all around us, and even the most outwardly simple tales can be steeped in myth, legend and complexity.
While Mekong Hotel may indeed be a rehash of previously espoused ideas or a rehearsal for a grand project to come, it stands on its own as a mesmerizing and thought-provoking piece of filmmaking. Even in his most outwardly insubstantial work, Apichatpong Weerasethakul tells a story worth telling, and an incredibly singular story at that.