Apichatpong’s father died in 2003, and his ashes were spread in the Mekong. During an interview for this year’s Berlinale, for which the director called-in from a hotel in Nakhon Panom, a small town on the Mekong bordering Laos, Apichatpong tried to articulate the river’s significance to him:
It’s where, symbolically, it’s important. It’s a place where my father’s ashes are scattered, so I always think that my dad is there, so kind of visiting a father. … His particle, somewhere.1
Memories and memorialisation saturate Apichatpong’s filmmaking practice, and memories of his father have rippled through his filmmaking since his death. The Christmas lights decorating the underground temple in Tropical Malady (2004) were taken directly from his funeral, an image reused for Boonmee’s funeral in Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010). For his 2011 installation For Tomorrow, For Tonight, Apichatpong draped actor Sakda Kaewbuadee in Christmas lights and photographed him sitting beside the Mekong River – echoing an old photograph of Apichatpong’s father undergoing dialysis late in his life.2 The film memorialises Apichatpong’s father, but also records the memories of his collaborators; their real experiences in the hotel, as well as the industrial and political transformations of Thailand.
Mekong Hotel is categorically murky – complicating divisions between fiction and documentary, short and feature filmmaking, narrative and installation – but as in many of his works, Apichatpong delights in playing with categorical distinctions. It emerged at a moment of unprecedented artistic scrutiny for Apichatpong, and was poorly received by critics on its initial release at Cannes. The film is simultaneously one of Apichatpong’s slowest films and one of his shortest, structured as 34 long takes spaced over 56 minutes and blurring the distinction between short and feature film forms. Mekong Hotel drifts between sequences of documentary realism and supernatural horror, dwelling for extended periods of time on his actors having banal conversations before transforming his characters into cannibalistic phi pop spirits from Thai folklore.3 These inexplicable narrative jumps make the film unusually difficult to follow (even by Apichatpong’s standards), encouraging a sensuous, moment-by-moment enjoyment of its audio-visual pleasures over narrative comprehension. Like two of his other short projects Morakot (Emerald) (2007) and M Hotel (2011), Mekong Hotel displays Apichatpong’s fascination with the liminal space of the hotel itself, a non-place that simultaneously stores and erases the memories of its occupants as they check in and check out. Like the river, Mekong Hotel resists solidification, drifting between fact and fiction, materiality and spirituality in the liminal space of a hotel on the Thai-Lao border.
Reflecting this spatial liminality, Mekong Hotel marks a transitional moment in Apichatpong’s own filmmaking. Filmed on a small budget financed by UK-based production company Illuminations Films, Apichatpong shot, edited, directed and produced the film himself to save costs, acting with regular collaborators Jenjira Pongpas and Sakda Kaewbuadee. Freed from the commercial demands of feature filmmaking and more closely approximating his short film and installation work, Mekong Hotel was a comfortable production improvised with friends over a short period of time. These reduced practical demands gave Apichatpong more room for artistic and technical experimentation. Mekong Hotel was Apichatpong’s first major film shot using digital cameras since The Adventure of Iron Pussy (Apichatpong Weerasethakul and Michael Shaowanasai, 2003), pre-empting the shift from 16mm celluloid in Uncle Boonmee to digital cinematography in Cemetery of Splendour (2015). Owing to the flexibility of the digital format, most of the film was shot with minimal lighting setups at magic hour, lingering in long takes of empty spaces and landscapes, staring out windows onto passing traffic and industrial worksites in styles reminiscent of Yasujirō Ozu’s pillow-shots.
Beyond this enhanced emphasis on visual contemplation, Mekong Hotel also innovates Apichatpong’s use of musical score. In comparison to Apichatpong’s earlier experimentations with Thai pop music, Mekong Hotel marked the director’s first use of a continuous musical score, this time provided by childhood friend and classical guitarist, Chai Bhatana. Echoing Apichatpong’s contemplative visual style, Chai’s music maintains a constant, undulating rhythm throughout the entire film unchanged by shifting events and sliding changes between fiction and reality. Like Max Richter’s concept album Sleep (2015), the undulating repetition of the musical score creates a space conducive to distraction or dozing off – a feeling mirrored by shots of characters sleeping on-screen.
Like all of Apichatpong’s films, Mekong Hotel is underpinned by an implicit commentary on the state of modern Thailand. Shot in the period between the 2010 military crackdown on Red Shirt protestors and the 2014 military coup, the film registers the underlying anxieties of a period of heightened political tension within Thailand. The visual recurrence of excavators (picked up later in Cemetery of Splendour) mark the ongoing threat of demolition and erasure, visualising the state of upheaval while also acknowledging Thailand’s ongoing and unequal processes of modernisation. The Mekong River itself – engorged by recent flooding – marks the transitional space between Thailand and Laos, establishing a fluid border space between them. As in his other works, Apichatpong’s submerged politics rarely force themselves to the surface, but form an important backdrop to his underlying concerns.
Mekong Hotel closes with a 277 second shot of boats on the Mekong River. The boats leave foam trails behind them as they dance across the water. This final shot encapsulates the feeling of emotional and physical detachment that underpins Mekong Hotel, but this shot can also be interpreted as a remnant of Apichatpong’s personal memories, particles of his father emulsified with the digital image.The boats’ contingent movements evade straightforward understanding or concrete meaning, and the Mekong itself is placed in a constant state of transition and transformation. In the distance, the Mekong hugs the shoreline of Laos, light traffic passing over a bridge connecting the country to Thailand. We hear the faint sounds of engines, churning water, and a solitary guitar. The sun is setting.
Mekong Hotel (2012 Thailand/UK 61 mins)
Prod Co: Illumination Films Prod: Keith Griffiths, Simon Field Dir: Apichatpong Weerasethakul Scr: Apichatpong Weerasethakul Phot: Apichatpong Weerasethakul Mus: Chai Bhatana
Cast: Jenjira Pongpas, Sakda Kaewbuadee, Chai Bhatana, Maiyatan Techaparn
- Apichatpong Weerasethakul and Juan Diaz Bohorquez, “Dream On: Apichatpong Weerasethakul,” Berlin International Film Festival, 4 March 2021 ↩
- Alfred Lee, “Mixing Memory and Desire: The Films of Apichatpong Weerasethakul,” LA Review of Books, 22 August 2013 ↩
- For further discussion of ghosts in Mekong Hotel, see: Natalie Boehler, “Staging the Spectral: The Border, Haunting and Politics in Mekong Hotel,” Horror Studies Issue 5.2 (2014): p. 197-210 ↩