“You could not step twice into the same river; for other waters are ever flowing on to you.”
by John A. Riley
The cinema of Apichatpong Weerasethakul is, amongst many other things, a cinema where ghosts, past lives, dreams and possibilities are all layered upon one another, flowing at a supine pace, with sodden atmosphere – like the Mekong river that forms the impassive centerpiece of this film. Many – if not most – of the film’s shots take place on a balcony overlooking the river, while everything else takes place in and around a hotel on the riverbanks. Guitarist Chai Bhatana strums away as Weerasethakul himself listens. People talk (sometimes scripted, sometimes improvised) in their rooms and out on the balcony. In one shocking scene, a monster, in human form, consumes her daughter’s entrails in a hotel room. We feel cut off from real time, it could be sunrise or sunset as speedboats zoom about in the river, in an the long take that forms the film’s final shot.
Weerasethakul has always made installations, short video projects and photography alongside his feature film work. Mekong Hotel seems to walk the line between the two, or to make that distinction seem artificial. The Mekong river on the border between Thailand and Laos, and with Weerasethakul’s predilection for boundary-blurrings of one kind or another (the gender-bending in The Adventures of Iron Pussy (2003), the mix of documentary and fiction here and in the thematically-related short Vampire (2013) – all this on top of the oneiric and ontological uncertainty he’s famed for) it seems likely that this choice of location is far from arbitrary. The static camera, regarding its subjects with a halcyon fascination, and the river with the pinkish sky above, come together to create a mood of tabula rasa, of vast potential still yet to be tapped. If this isn’t a major work by Weerasethakul, then it’s one that suggests that there’s a great deal more evocative, provocative work yet to come. Heraclitus’s pronouncement about never being able to step into the same river twice always comes to mind when thinking of Weerasethakul’s cinema, as his films seem to be a new work each time they are viewed. His films, this one in particular, seem to be always shifting, moving between fiction and documentary, and coiling and uncoiling itself like some mythical cryptid.