Mekong Hotel: Cannes Review

Mekong Hotel H 2012
Miniature rumination on reincarnation and romance overstays its welcome even at 59 minutes.

Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul's docu-fiction takes place in a haunted riverside hotel in Thailand.

Reservations unfortunately can't be recommended for Apichatpong Weerasethakul's waterlogged squib Mekong Hotel, an hour-long docu/fiction hybrid filmed in a riverside hostelry in north-eastern Thailand.

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Commissioned by French TV, this British/Thai co-production reportedly forms part of an ambitious new "Mekong Project" from Weerasethakul, still riding high as one of arthouse cinema's few genuinely global kings after 2010's Palme d'Or winner Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives. As a segment of some grand overall design the sluggishly torpid Mekong Hotel, granted an out-of-competition berth at Cannes, might eventually find its place. But taken purely as a stand-alone, it's strictly for festivals, channels and galleries favoring the more impenetrable end of the high-art cinema scene -- and will likely baffle, frustrate and tax those unfamiliar with Weerasethakul's back-catalogue.

Overlooking the wide, slow Mekong River on the Thai/Laos border, the hotel of the title is named in the closing credits as the "Sam Oar Guest House." Or should that be ghost house? As usual with Weerasethakul, reincarnation is a major theme here. And spirits from the past -- some matter-of-factly corporeal, some scarily supernatural, some of them nagging remnants of individual memory -- are an inescapable aspect of the present. Here they weave in and out of a film which the director himself fancifully terms a "documentary portrait," and which features several of his previous actors apparently "playing" versions of themselves.

There are several unvarnished long-shots of civil-engineering works unfolding in the hotel's immediate surroundings, and certain scenes within the hotel's confines do have a verité feel, including early shots of Weerasethakul watching guitarist Chai Bhatana - who provided the music for his most recent short Ashes -- plucking out melodies on a hotel balcony. Bhatana's undulating score is almost ever-present throughout Mekong Hotel, giving a measure of tonal unity to proceedings but verging on the intrusive from time to time.

Along the way we see romantic verandah meetings; first-person testimony about this modern-day backwater's troubled political past; mysterious conversations in bedrooms and, most jarringly, larkishly gory fantasy interludes in which folk are possessed by a certain demon which loves to messily feast on entrails. Certain story-fragments pop up in the soporific flow from time to time - such as a young couple edging towards a relationship - but these are oblique and opaque at best, and it's clear that Weerasethakul is even less concerned with conventional narrative considerations here than he was in the free-rangingly imaginative Uncle Boonmee.

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It's always encouraging to know that an excitingly original, genuinely artistic exponent of cinema -- which Weerasethakul undoubtedly now is -- is working through new sets of ideas, of course. But such experimentation is sometimes best conducted away from public view, and the self-indulgently self-referential Mekong Hotel, which feels essentially like an elaborate sketch for an upcoming feature (or three two), and on which Weerasethakul took on most of the major creative duties himself rather than trusting them to collaborators, is a case in point.

The planet's ever-growing number of Weerasethakul-devotees will doubtless find much to admire and enjoy over the course of these minutes, and would no doubt argue that the picture only makes sense when seen through the prism of his previous offerings -- which have included full-length fictions, documentaries, mid-lengthers, shorts, installation pieces and more. So prolific an output is, perhaps inevitably, uneven -- but one clear creative pinnacle was 2007's Mekong Project scene-setter Luminous People, a hypnotically atmospheric recreation of a burial ritual set on a boat plying the mighty river's waters which achieved much more in 15 minutes than Mekong Hotel manages at just under quadruple the length.

Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Out of Competition - Special Screenings), May. 17, 2012.
Production companies: Kick the Machine; Illuminations Films.
Cast: Jenjira Pongpas, Maiyatan Techaparn, Sakda Kaewbuadee, Chai Bhatana, Chatchai Suban
Director / Screenwriter / Editor / Producer / Director of photography: Apichatpong Weerasethakul
Executive producers: Simon Field, Keith Griffiths
Music: Chai Bhatana
Sales Agent: Wild Bunch, Paris
No rating, 59 minutes.