At the “Mekong Hotel”

By Andrew Hamlin
Northwest Asian Weekly

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“All characters appearing in this work are actual persons,” warns the fine print at the end of Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s new film, “Mekong Hotel.”

“Any resemblance to other real beings, living or dead, is not coincidental.”

It’s an odd, wry turn on the traditional disclaimer at the end of dramatic films, which states, “Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.” But it typifies the Thai director’s approach to both film and real life.  He wants to tweak your notions of what’s real and unreal, what’s fact and fiction.

“Mekong Hotel” overthrows convention right from the get-go by opening with a pitch black screen. Two Thai men’s voices and one guitar can be heard on the soundtrack, but the audience doesn’t see them for a minute or so.

Weerasethakul, who shot his very first short film with one flashing strobe light and without any actors, has a lot of experience with the unconventional. His 2010 feature film “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives,” won the prized Palme d’Or award at the Cannes Film Festival. The film contrasted human mortality with eerie, glowing-eyed jungle beings.

Many aspects of “Mekong Hotel” are quite mundane. The director shot the film at an actual hotel on the actual Mekong, a river near the border with Laos. Much conversation has to do with Laotian refugees, their treatment by the Thai government, and their eventual fates. The inhabitants of the hotel talk about this offhandedly, the way many people would, to pass the time. The seemingly-simple exposition reminds us, though, that even when we speak casually, we give our own opinions, our own spin on the matter. We write our own history, even as we share with others.

The music of Chatchai Suban, a real life friend of the director, also permeates the film. Suban appears in the first sequence, cradling his classical guitar and chuckling about his technical shortcomings. But he plays a spare, affecting blend of classical and blues stylings, fillings the film’s soundtrack no matter how mundane or how horrifying the onscreen action becomes. This serves to point out that existence, life itself, has a through line — a strong common denominator to all experience that we would do well to remember.

Some of the action involves violence, gore, and horrified reactions to the violence and gore. These sequences seem to drop in out of nowhere, but that too forms part of Weerasethakul’s teachings. We can have “normal” life one moment, and in the next, there can suddenly be something almost too  disturbing to watch. The monsters and killers of our life walk, talk, sit, and breathe amongst our loved ones.

The visual sign of a circle divided in half appears towards the end of “Mekong Hotel,” which sums up the director’s approach. He fills his screen with love and gore, affectionate mothers and vengeful demons, with talk, with action, and with talk superimposed over seemingly-irrelevant action. He isn’t afraid to mix genres and boldly defy conventions.

Ultimately, though, he seems to be saying that our lives and our shared life manifest in a commonality. We need to open our eyes, to see the common aspects of widely-varying experiences. But with that vision, we can apprehend the true shape of nature. We can disregard the dividing line to concentrate on the circle of completeness. (end)

“Mekong Hotel” and the “Sakda” short film plays from December 7 through December 13 at the Northwest Film Forum, 1515 12th Avenue on Seattle’s Capitol Hill.  For showtimes, prices, directions, and more information, call 206-829-7863 or visit http://nwfilmforum.org/live/page/calendar/2457.

Andrew Hamlin can be reached at info@nwasianweekly.com.

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