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BFI London Film Festival 2012: 'Mekong Hotel' review

★★★☆☆
When it comes to impenetrable arthouse fare, Thai indie auteur Apichatpong Weerasethakul is widely regarded as something of a master. Two years ago, he arrived in London triumphantly with his Palme d'Or for the majestic Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010) and has returned this year with the not-quite-feature-length oddity, Mekong Hotel (2012), which rightly features in the LFF's 'Experimenta' stream. Weerasethakul's latest lingers instead on a series of moments all taking place around the titular hostelry sat on the bank of the enormous river which separates Thailand from Laos.

As an acoustic guitar plays a continuous refrain, a young couple seem to meet for the first time before the supernatural takes a hold of proceedings. After their initial introduction as to the cause of a dog's death, it becomes apparent that the hotel is in fact home to ghosts. Mekong Hotel does suffer from a slightly disjointed opening, in which we seem to see Weerasethakul himself auditioning the guitarist who provides the film's soundtrack. However, it quickly settles into the filmmaker's trademark languorous rhythm as we hear ruminations on rebirth and on the pain of death, interspersed with some startling moments in which the hungry ghosts feed and nice injections of humour.

The film touches, once again, on the themes that have preoccupied the director throughout his previous films; death, spirits, reincarnation, memory, tradition. Best enjoyed by just allowing the directors images and atmosphere wash over you, Mekong Hotel lacks any dramatic through line though scenes appearing isolated are surprisingly moving at times. It does, somehow, become ultimately gripping where the director has a profound knack of mesmerising with the most mundane things when he wants to. A final shot of the river flowing past and some youths jet-skiing in the distance lasts for minutes on end without ever feeling too long.

This is, however, a bit of self indulgence from Weerasethakul; at least when taken as a film in its own right. It does not have the scale, scope or wonder of his utterly sublime feature output and is perhaps an easier piece to understand when familiar with his previous work and style. It might be that when viewed as part of the entire Mekong Project will feel less like a trifle. As it is, the film is probably one for fans to enjoy and enjoy it they undoubtedly will; anything for a chance to spend an hour with Weerasethakul.

The 56th BFI London Film Festival runs from 10-21 October. For more of our LFF coverage, simply follow this link.

Ben Nicholson
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