Review: Mekong 2030

Commissioned by Luang Prabang Film Festival, MEKONG 2030 comprises five short films by Southeast Asian directors, all of which are concerned with what the conditions of the Mekong River (flowing through each of their respective countries) will be in little under a decade’s time: “Soul River,” by Kulikar Sotho (Cambodia); “The Che Brothers,” by Anysay Keola (Laos); “The Forgotten Voices of the Mekong,” by Sai Naw Kham (Myanmar); “The Line,” by Anocha Suwichakornpong (Thailand); and “The Unseen River,” by Pham Ngoc Lân (Vietnam). The weakest of the set, thanks to some atrocious acting, is “The Che Brothers,” although it’ll likely claim the Contemporaneous Relevance tag since it features masks, a mysterious illness and efforts to produce a vaccine. More directly about the Mekong, its fragile ecological status, and how it’s used rapaciously in the service of capital, are “Soul River” and “Forgotten Voices,” neither of which stick in the mind for long after watching, though the latter has, at first, an intriguing documentary texture. “The Unseen River” starts well enough, with a probing camera and a worried soundscape, linking past lovers who reminisce by the Mekong’s banks and a young pair who, searching for a sleep therapy, visit a monk. But the use of space is too hemmed in for its own good, and as placidity takes over the style, it affords itself an easy conclusion. Best is “The Line,” which sees Suwichakornpong (once more) staging in depth and playing with pixels. An indecisive artist is displaying her newest installation at a gallery, one with clean lines and white walls, exactly the kind of spaces the director’s staging favours. Her piece involves the Mekong, some half-theorised thoughts about Henri Bergson and object-oriented ontology, and a lot of digital manipulation (akin to the—very beautiful—final shot of By the Time it Gets Dark) over which an automated voice speaks Mandarin. Less explicitly eco-critical than Krabi 2562, with which it shares a hauntological gesture, “The Line” does feature a totemic screen-bleeding-into-screen moment, and as ever with Suwichakornpong, the quietest movements are the most fascinating (a pan around a kitchen does more work to unsettle than expected). Abstract in more rigorous ways than “The Unseen River,” and, since it doesn’t state its conclusion outright like the others, will prove more apposite for watching again, “The Line” overpowers MEKONG 2030; and has increased my anticipation for Suwichakornpong’s forthcoming Come Here tenfold. 

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