Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s new film Mekong Hotel ends with a long take of a river. The six-minute shot depicts a precious time of day: those fleeting moments when dusk washes the world in a soft luminosity. The ripples of the river’s surface form a field of persistent motion below the stillness of a blank sky. A swath of shimmering water in the middle of the frame flickers like light projected on a movie screen.
It might be easy to see Mekong Hotel as part of an arthouse trend towards very slow cinema that accentuates the richness and detail of the projected large-screen image as a rejoinder to the question: why bother to continue seeing films in cinemas? Critics have identified this durational aesthetic as a means of reinvesting in the immersive and contemplative qualities of old-fashioned filmgoing. These films dilate time to sharpen the viewer’s acuity.
In Mekong Hotel, slowness operates differently. It is less atomizing of the viewer. Duration triggers a more interpersonal mode of spectating. To understand this difference, we must unpack how the film presents its final shot as a vista. Vistas are views made possible by outlooks: a riverbank, the edge of a hill, a hotel balcony, and here, cinema. In Apichatpong’s filmmaking, a vista is not just a panoramic expanse; it is a shared view, a vision seen together and shared over time.
Since the film introduces this final vista through a preceding shot of two male characters looking out at the river, the frame initially strikes us as the unmediated conduit for what the men are seeing. But they never reappear. So while we feel at times vitally connected to this diegetic couple’s watching, there are other periods when we feel that our meandering attention has abandoned their POV for ours alone. The shot’s variegated temporality confronts the viewer with a tension between individual and collective registers of looking: an assortment of differently paced micro-events and seemingly inconsequential actions make looking seem both individualistic (distraction is decidedly personal) and communal (sharing a durational observation with other humans onscreen and off).
Mekong Hotel ’s final shot refuses to have us forget that the film image in the cinema is always a shared view. This is a vision shared with strangers in the dark. When we lose the communal look that cinema viewing allows, this shot asks, what forms of intimacy will our world lose?