Screens at CIFF: 10/12 & 10/21 & 10/19
World premiere: 18 May, 2012, Cannes Film Festival

After much consideration, and carefully reviewing the exact circumstances of its making, I still have no idea what Mekong Hotel, the sixth, and at 61 minutes, the shortest, feature film made by Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul's, is "about". Which is a little vexing, but also not terribly shocking in the context of a director whose work to date has been enthusiastically resistant to cinematic norms, and is much easier to interpret, intuitively, as a whole long block of emotional states ebbing and flowing around one another, than as a collection of moments whose aesthetic function - to say absolutely of their narrative function - is next to impossible to parse out, after one or (in my case, at least) multiple viewings. The low-falutin' way of putting it is, "I like Weerasethakul movies because they make me feel things, and fucked if I can explain why", which is an unhelpful position for a movie reviewer to adopt.

In a career built almost entirely out of dyads (Blissfully Yours and Tropical Malady are both two-part narratives; Syndromes and a Century, for me his reigning masterpiece by a long distance, tells a single story twice) it seems fitting that Mekong Hotel is a movie that can be watched in two ways, depending on how much one wants to study up on the project's backstory: on one level, it's a story about man-eating female ghosts, called pob, so abstract and minimalist that it hardly seems to happening - and this is also not terribly shocking for a Weerasethakul film - in which a man named Tong (Sakda Kaewbuadee) finds a young woman, Phon (Maiyatan Techaparn) and her mother (Jenjira Pongpas) wandering around, literally haunting the place. But's also about how these three actors are performing what amounts to an unstaged reading of key sequences from a script Weerasethakul was unable to finance, Ecstasy Garden, which was a more ambitious, science fiction-tinged version of the same scenario, and Mekong Hotel, which has been claimed as a documentary of sorts, is thus something halfway between rehearsal video and home movie.

In fact, the film is, just like the director's earlier work, divided into two sections, though they do not follow each other linearly: there is the movie depicting the content of the screenplay, and the movie which watches the actors out of character, talking about the project or their lives, or taking notes from the director. The film does not see fit to distinguish between these two modes, which makes an already-difficult movie even harder, although there are a few obvious moments, such as Weerasethakul, off-screen, helping Kaewbuadee pick out a shirt to wear (both creepy and funny, and even self-mocking in the moment that the actor sarcastically notes that all of his choices have the name "Joe" on them - that being Weerasethakul's familiar name for Westerners who can't work our way around "Apichatpong").

And then, secondly, there is the split between the movie we see and the movie we hear: for throughout very nearly all of the film's running time, there is an improvised guitar score by Chai Bhatana playing, a short, tuneless piece that repeats itself to the point of madness, interrupted only by audio of Bhatana chatting briefly at the end or beginning of recording. The music is so divorced from the movie it accompanies as to feel like a separate project altogether, though it too works on a more intuitive than descriptive level: one can only hear the same cycle of chords so many times before they start to become unabashedly hypnotic, though that might be the polite way of putting it: wears the viewer down into something resembling a trance would be perhaps more accurate.

As apparently the only person in America was vaguely disappointed in Weerasethakul's Palme-winning Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, which felt a little normal for the director (for a given sense of "normal"), I'm delighted to find him returning to something so abstruse as to seem like little more than a tone poem on the theme of "acting out dialogue" - the way I look at it, is we have all the filmmakers in the world making films that are meant to be concrete and comprehensible, and we have just the one making movies that are so inscrutable, driven more by emotional, experiential logic than anything that can be articulated in even the most halting ways. Mekong Hotel might not make any particular "sense" and its collision of conversations, scripted or not, about the inheritance of parental sin, of clothing styles, of the violence perpetrated in Laos over the last few decades, none of which tie in together, with its twilit footage of the old hotel on the grand river, and with its folksy music, might not add up to anything that feels like an intellectually sound argument. But it feels right, somehow; the laid-back pace, the bland mixture of supernatural violence with workaday body language, the I-dare-you-to-look-away final shot of people playing on the river in the distance as nothing happens over the course of five minutes, except for a single boat moving in and back out of the frame, all of it gives the movie an extremely specific mood of elegy and nostalgia, though what the movie thinks about that mood, I cannot say, nor do I feel like I want to.

8/10
(Adjusted, reluctantly, from 9/10, on account of my suspicion that nobody I ever meet will like the movie quite as much as I do)