Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul is a critic’s darling if ever there was one. His 2010 feature “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives” won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, and before that his reputation rose with “Blissfully Yours” (2002), “Tropical Malady” (2004) and “Syndromes and a Century” (2006), along with a steady flow of shorts and features dating back to 1993.
I’ve used the term “critic’s darling” not to alienate mainstream viewers but to emphasize that Weerasethakul’s languorous films demand to be absorbed without resistance. It’s worth the effort to look closer and allow yourself to be seduced.
Running just under an hour and accompanied by a soothing soundtrack of acoustic guitar, “Mekong Hotel” qualifies as a spiritual B-side to “Boonmee” with its roots in “Ecstasy Garden,” a ghost story that Weerasethakul developed in 2002 and later abandoned. In the titular hotel setting, in northeast Thailand, we find young couple Tong (Sakda Kaewattana) and Phon (Maiyatan Techaparn) sedately sharing a view of the Mekong River as it matches the peaceful flow of their conversation.
As in “Boonmee,” past lives, loves and Thai folk tales hold sway, in addition to the not-so-ghostly presence of Phon’s dead mother (Jenjira Pongbas), a “Pob ghost” who possesses Tong and Phon with an insatiable appetite for human entrails.
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But this isn’t a horror story, unless you count the film’s subtle yet pointed critique of the Thai government’s mishandling of the devastating floods of 2011 (when this film was shot). In that sense, “Mekong Hotel” is like Weerasethakul’s answer to HBO’s “Treme,” with reincarnation as the connecting thread between the film’s parallel layers of fiction and documentary.
Despite its creator’s unmistakable imprint, I suspect many will react to “Mekong Hotel” as I did, with appreciation but a growing sense of impatience. Compared with Weerasethakul’s acclaimed features, it feels cobbled together and improvised, which for the most part it was.