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?
Karl, I love your reading of Apichatpong's style as working with two temporal registers, simultaneously. I want to see this as less of a dualism, more of a mixture: distraction and duration (i.e., personal and shared kinds of time, i.e., subjective and objective times, i.e., internal and external times) are fantastically mixed in the film. What I would ask--and I've been asking myself this question--is, how will we reconcile the reality of a (seemingly) more distracted present with the continued reality of community, shared time, and duration? It seems to me that things still take time, despite some reports to the contrary. By framing of intimacy and community as matters of time, and the "digital turn" as a shift in temporality, I think you open up a really productive way to think about what is happening.
Admixture, Demons, Collective Distraction
I really appreciate your comments because raising the idea of mixture is absolutely key to this film which depicts ghost-demons who can occupy different bodies and go around eating entrails out of corpses. So the film also raises these questions of mediality -- the internal erupting external, the personal colliding with the communal -- in its story elements as well. Your central question above is a fascinating one. It prompts other questions: Is the communal a mode of attentiveness? An experience of collective attention? Should we differentiate between duration experienced individually from duration experience collectively? Can distraction be experienced collectively? Does it ever form a communal experience?
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