Film Review: Mekong Hotel

Deceptively simple film becomes a strange, meditative look into Thai culture and folklore.
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Mekong Hotel opens in the U.S. as one of two recent efforts by cult auteur Apichatpong Weerasethakul (the other is Cemetery of Splendor), and the twin release should increase awareness of Weerasethakul’s unusual oeuvre.

Actually shot in 2012, Mekong Hotel starts out as a documentary about some of the guests staying in a hotel located near the Mekong River in Northern Thailand. However, what transpires forces us to question the initially established “reality.” On the terrace of the hotel, a young man (Sakda Kaewattana) and young woman (Maiyatan Techaparn) strike up a friendship, yet we eventually learn the young woman’s mother (Jenjira Pongpas) is a vampire-like creature that has eaten her daughter! Thus, the young man is only seeing a ghostly apparition as the romance blossoms between him and the young woman, and as the mother begins to morph into other characters. While this nightmare continues, we also wonder if it all might be a pre-production rehearsal for a new project by Weerasethakul.

With little context or grounding, it is difficult to completely understand the events of Mekong Hotel, let alone their meaning. Nevertheless, Weerasethakul makes the 57-minute blend of fact and fiction into a puzzle worth pondering. By portraying the fantastic, ghoulish moments in the same hyper-realistic way as the ordinary, everyday portions, including a bit between the director and musician Chai Bhatana, the film forces us to figure out the narrative threads and their cultural significance. The misogyny inherent in the mother-as-vampire mythos makes Mekong Hotel, to some extent, a campy throwback; still, the straightforward, non-stylized technique prevents any easy interpretation or categorization.

Cemetery of Splendor also maintains a mysterious quality, telling the story of an army clinic volunteer (Pongpas again) attracted to a convalescing soldier. The war and violence of the past haunt the place—but give way to hope and healing. Like Weerasethakul’s acclaimed 2010 feature Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, Cemetery of Splendor delves deeper into the mysticism that is touched upon in a nearly comic fashion in Mekong Hotel, which comes across as a minor work and/or parody by comparison.

In the postmodern vein of William Greaves’ Symbiopsychotaxiplasm films, Mekong Hotel keeps its audience guessing—not with as much vigor or complexity, perhaps, but in a way that is still a rare movie event.

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