Before exploring Mekong Hotel, a short but truly magical film by Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul, I want to explain a key concept in the books of Portuguese neuroscientist Antonio Damasio. For Damasio, emotions are not the same as feelings. Emotions are more active, more in the moment, more a set of processes that produces a suite of chemical changes in the body. A feeling, on the other hand, is more an image than an actual event. In fact, Damasio believes feelings are not only images but also the most primitive and deepest kinds of images we and other animals have. So on one side, we have emotional responses; on the other side, we dwell on our feelings—the image of the hurt, the image of shock, the image of joy. Why bring this up? In the way that Damasio makes a distinction between emotions and feelings, it's useful to make a distinction between emotional films and feeling films. Mekong Hotel, the subject of this review, is best understood as the latter, a feeling film.
When the cinema of emotion is great, it is gripping. When the cinema of feeling is great, it is absorbing. With the cinema of emotion, the image is an instrument for the production of emotional states: terror, horror, suspense. With the cinema of feeling, the image is not a means to an end—the image is the end. If Mekong Hotel were an emotional film, it would be a horror film. But because it is a feeling film, the elements of horror do not drive the plot or even scare us. Even the scene of an old woman eating the intestines of a young man is not scary or particularly gory. Indeed, she eats the young man's guts with great feeling and interest, like a person appreciating the colors and textures, the details and forms of a painting. (As with Weerasethakul's previous film, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, Mekong Hotel moves between the real world of humans and the magical world of monsters, goblins, ghosts, and spirits.)
Some of the guests in the hotel, which is on the banks of the slow and wide Mekong River, are human, and others are not. The ones who are not human desire human guts; the ones who are human spend their time thinking about the past, thinking about love, thinking about the region, the river, the people on the river. As the humans think, and the nonhumans eat humans, we hear the sweet but sad music of a solo guitar. At the beginning of the film, a guitarist in silky pants (he sits on a wooden bench like that old guitarist in Picasso's painting) tells another man that he is playing in the Spanish style. Near the middle of the film, the guitarist plays the blues. Throughout the film, the music drifts in and out of scenes, complicating the meaning and themes of the images.
In one scene, an old woman sits on a balcony with a young woman and, as she knits, talks about how she was very patriotic in her youth and learned to fire an M16 rifle. As the old woman describes the powerful kick of the machine gun, we become absorbed by the purple ball of yarn on the table in front of her, the motionless clouds in the distance, the sweetness of the music drifting in the air, and the sun setting on the river, the jungle, and the city in the jungle. From this combination of things, we get a very strange feeling.