Saturday, September 10, 2022

Midlengths: Mekong Hotel

Apichatpong "Joe" Weerasethakul’s films can drain the energy out of viewers, so maybe it was fitting for him to make a vampire film. He presents this “story” in his usual dreamy style, but he still serves up a few bloody entrails in the hour-long Mekong Hotel, which screens as part of the Metrograph’s series Midlengths, consisting of short features or long shorts, around the sixty-minute mark.

Tong and Phon meet repeatedly on the balcony of their hotel overlooking the Mekong River. They feel like they have met before and maybe they have. Frankly, it might seem to be an inappropriate time for romance, because of the expected flooding and the waves of displaced people who will soon rush into the city as a result. Also, Phon is sharing a room with her mother, who happens to be a vampire, who feeds on men in the hotel. However, she did not eat the guts of Tong’s poor dog. That was another Thai “Pob” ghost.

It all unfolds to the sounds of Chai Bhatana’s acoustic guitar melodies, which Weerasethakul requests from his old friend during the prologue. Presumably, that is why the film is sometimes described as a “docu-hybrid.” Regardless, Bhatana’s music (largely inspired by Spanish classical guitar) bring a lot to the film. In fact, for some of us, they just might
be the film.

Weerasethakul employs his familiar long-held, static shots, but the narrative is especially sketchy this time around—not surprisingly, since it was essentially cobbled together from notes for a project that never came to fruition. Waste not, want not. Regardless, despite the supernatural elements, this is not a film for horror fans. Indeed, it could be the most peaceful, lulling film about ghosts and vampires stalking victims during a catastrophic flood that you will ever see.

Even though we rarely get a good look at their faces, Sakda Kaewattana and Maiyatan play Tong and Phon with the appropriate hushed sensitivity for Weerasethakul’s themes and style. Serving as his own cinematographer, Weerasethakul also nicely captures the river’s deceptive surface calm, conveying a vivid sense of place.

It all sure looks like a Weerasethakul film and it is paced like one too, but Bhatana’s guitar will keep many of us hooked and the occasional shocking bits of gore will rouse you out of your languor. It is more accessible than his over-rated
Uncle Boonmee and shorter), but not as emotionally satisfying as Weerasethakul’s best film, Cemetery of Splendour. Even with the pleasant soundtrack, Mekong Hotel is still only recommended for slow cinema connoisseurs, when its screens tomorrow (9/11) and Friday (9/16) at the Metrograph.