MEKONG 2030 (Kulikar Sotho, Anysay Keola, Sai Naw Kham, Anocha Suwichakornpong, Pham Ngoc Lân, 2020)

Literally on the shores of an ecological crisis, the communities along the Mekong River know better than most the dangers of climate change and increasing industrialisation. Commissioned by the Luang Prabang Film Festival, MEKONG 2030 takes its cues from the recent “ten years” phenomenon, bringing together five directors from different nations along the Mekong to imagine what the situation might be in a decade’s time. 

Environmental concerns and changing times are clearly at the forefront of Cambodian director Kulikar Sotho’s Soul River in which Klark, an indigenous huntsman, discovers an ancient statue in the forest and determines to sell it to buy a better future for himself and his wife having lost everything in a flood caused by deforestation and the affects of increasing industrialisation. Unfortunately he is challenged by Sok, a former fisherman forced onto the land due to the lack of fish in the river, who claims to be the land’s owner and insists the statue is his. An amusing stand off, Klark’s machete vs Sok’s walkie-talkie, signals their respective positions as avatars of new and old. Nevertheless, the statue is too heavy for one man to carry and so they agree to work together, occasionally quibbling over their respective cuts and irritating Klark’s conflicted wife Ladet whose premonition that the statue is cursed is well and truly borne out as the two men begin to lose themselves in greed and suspicion. Yet as her closing voice over reminds us their sin is emblematic of their times in their irresponsible and arrogant desire to “sell” their nation’s ancestral treasures, be they forests, rivers, or statues the protection of which should have been their only duty. 

Depleting fish stocks and industrial pollution are also a persistent theme in the entry from Laos as a worried sister explains to her student brother concerned to see nets covered in dust on his return home from university. Xe is worried because his sister has a bruise on her face and seems to have separated from her husband and children she says to look after their mother who, as it turns out, is immune to the ongoing plague and therefore a valuable commodity to those hoping to find a vaccine. The bruise was apparently caused when their older brother, who has since become a warlord, kidnapped mum in order to monopolise her exploitation. The sister wants Xe to kidnap her back, but the deeper he gets into this awkward situation the more conflicted Xe feels knowing that whatever is actually going on both of his siblings are in effect determined to bleed his mother dry for economic gain. 

The precarious position of the older generation and the side effects of industrialisation raise their heads again in chapter three, Myanmar’s The Forgotten Voices of the Mekong in which well-meaning young village chief Charlie determines to “modernise” his community by inviting a mining conglomerate to begin digging gold on their land. An old grandma patiently teaching her grandson to care for the local herb grown for its medicinal properties is the voice of opposition, pointing out that there is nothing wrong with their lives as they are and so she feels they don’t need the complications of the “modernity” Charlie is determined to bring them. He tells her that he’s the chief now and so they’ll do as he says and so she calmly walks out of the meeting, but her animosity is soon vindicated when farmers complain their livestock has been poisoned after drinking water contaminated by the mine. Not long after a child is taken ill. Devils devour everything, but there is something we can do the old woman assures her grandson: make the mountains green again. 

Shifting into a more abstract register, Anocha Suwichakornpong’s Thai entry The Line takes the river as a protagonist through the film within the film playing on a gallery wall though apparently in some way unsatisfying to its creator. Speaking in a robotic Mandarin, the video places an ironic voiceover on top of images of the river and the city juxtaposing an incongruous family history with a vision of modernity. Meanwhile, a young intern makes smalltalk with her temporary bosses who seem to have no time for her about a weird animal captured on camera in the river near her hometown, and the artist explains her intention of dramatising a vision of space and time through the story of the river.  

The sense of the Mekong as liquid time recurs in the final instalment, Vietnam’s The Unseen River, in which two stories, one of youth and the other age, run in parallel. While a young couple make a visit to a temple hoping to find a cure for the boy’s restless sleep, a middle-aged woman catches sight of a somehow familiar dog that serendipitously reunites her with her long-absent first love who went abroad to study shortly before they dammed the river. In a piece of possibly unhelpful advice, the old monk tells the young man that all he needs to do is “believe” in the act of sleeping. Sinking into a deep sleep is like surrendering yourself to the current he explains, directly linking the rythms of life to the river while the young monk attributes their youthful llistlessness, the failure to see a future that has prevented the young couple marrying, to the inability to dream. The river is both past and future, dream and reality. It is disconnection with the natural world which has so affected the young man, something he perhaps repairs borrowing the monk’s decommissioned fishing rod to gaze upon the wide river under the light of the moon. 

Giving voice to the anxieties of climate change, overdevelopment, the unequal power dynamics of large corporations operating in rural communities, the erosion of traditional culture, and the loss of the natural world, MEKONG 2030 issues a strong warning against ecological complacency but also rediscovers a kind of serenity in the river’s eternal presence even as it is perhaps flowing away from us. 


MEKONG 2030 streamed as part of this year’s San Diego Asian Film Festival. Readers in Poland will also have the opportunity to stream MEKONG 2030 as part of the 14th Five Flavours Film Festival 25th November to 6th December.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Mundane History (เจ้านกกระจอก, Anocha Suwichakornpong, 2009)

mundane history posterIs it possible to live without past or future, exist entirely within the pureness of the now? Anocha Suwichakornpong contemplates the bubble existence in her complex debut, Mundane History (เจ้านกกระจอก, Jao Nok Krajok). Class conflict jostles with the fading grandeur of a declining bourgeoisie while two young men lament their broken dreams, one believing himself a prisoner of his privilege and the other trapped by economic inequality. Yet despite their differences, the familial disconnections, and the austerity of their “soulless” environment, a connection is eventually formed making way for a rebirth, new life birthed in the ashes of the old.

Pun (Arkaney Cherkam), a nurse from a humble background, has travelled from the north to take a job as the full time carer for the son of a wealthy man, Ake (Phakpoom Surapongsanuruk), recently paralysed from the neck down after a mysterious accident. As Pun tells an intimate acquaintance, perhaps his sister, on the telephone, the house is beautiful but drenched in hopelessness and everyone within it seemingly dead inside.

Moody and resentful, Ake is now a virtual prisoner within his father’s household. Enraged by his new found impotence, he treats Pun with contempt, ironically enough embodying the role of the young master which is perhaps the key to his anger with his distant, austere father who has essentially outsourced his son’s care and then had him walled up at home like a guilty secret. Ake angrily refuses visitors, either embarrassed by his disability or not wanting to witness their pity, and spends his days doing nothing at all but staring blankly into the middle distance, unable to reconcile himself to the terrifying “mundanity” of his repetitive, unchanging existence.

As Ake becomes used to Pun’s gentle presence and allows himself to be cared for, a friendship begins to arise. Both men dreamed of becoming writers, one developing an interest in photography and the other film, but neither of them found their dreams fulfilled. Ake’s sense of defeat is palpable as he finds himself literally trapped by his father’s legacy, unable to escape the claustrophobic world of the family home and consumed by resentment as he convinces himself that his dream of becoming a film director is now unattainable thanks to his disability. Pun, meanwhile, is equally melancholy, perhaps secretly resentful but outwardly making the best of the hand he’s been dealt. From a humble background and orphaned young with siblings to support, his artistic dreams were taken from him by bad luck and socio-economic oppression though it hasn’t killed his kindly heart. 

The austere coldness of Ake’s father and the mansion’s emotional deadness perhaps represent an older generation’s longing for the safeties of an authoritarian world of rigid class boundaries and feudalistic loyalties. Ake’s housekeeper, the prim and proper Somjai (Anchana Ponpitakthepkij), is a relic of this all but forgotten world – a career servant who has silently watched Ake grow as her own youth faded and finally decides to puncture the class divide only to ensure its survival in urging Ake to maintain his stiff upper lip and avoid giving in to despair. Somjai resents Pun’s awkward, liminal status in the house as the only other member permitted to walk freely in the upstairs world and seeks to him keep down, eating with the other servants where he belongs. Pun, like the cook Kaew – also a northerner, doubts he can stay in this world indefinitely, already tired of its energy sapping rigidity and entrenched class-based social codes.

Ake’s resentment towards his father is also a rebellion against his old fashioned authoritarianism which stifles the natural desire of the young for freedom. Now literally unable to escape unaided, Ake feels as if his father has trapped him, deliberately, within the confines of his own value system with no possibility of salvation. The house is, in a sense, the eternal present that Pun and Ake talk about in one of their few moments of blissful togetherness as they lie alone on the grass lawn staring at the blue sky, but the inertia crushes them, driving young men to despair. A trip to the planetarium coupled with Ake’s youthful student films provides an opportunity for rebirth if only in destruction. Stars burn out, destroy themselves, but become nebulas in the process. Anocha Suwichakornpong’s fragmentary narrative is indeed nebulised, pulsing in brief fragments until the whole somehow connects and sparks into life. The spiritual rebirth echoes the political, the desire of youth to break free reasserts itself and the mundane history of an ordinary life regains its cosmic grandeur.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

By the Time it Gets Dark (ดาวคะนอง, Anocha Suwichakornpong, 2016)

by the time it gets darkAnocha Suwichakornpong’s second feature, By the Time it Gets Dark (ดาวคะนอง.Dao Khanong), bills itself as an exploration of a traumatic moment from the recent past but quickly subverts this conceit for a wider meditation on the veracity of cinema. Beginning in a manner typical of indie-leaning Thai films, Anocha gently undercuts herself as her images prism into their separate “realities”, informing and commenting on each other but perhaps not fully interacting. The Thammasat University student massacre of 1976 is the dark genesis of this fracturing future, but it’s also in the process of becoming a collective legend, cementing a “historical truth” as cultural currency even whilst expunged from the history books, leaving its young lost in a black hole of memory from which they are powerless to emerge.

A young woman welcomes an older one to a remote country villa. The younger woman treats the older with respect, talks up the merits of the house and insists she take the larger upstairs room. The younger woman, Ann (Visra Vichit-Vadakan), is a 30-something filmmaker who has invited the older woman, Teaw (Rassami Paoluengtong) – a former student protest leader turned respected writer,  for a prolonged interview period she hopes to use as research for a film about the events of 1976. Ill equipped to cope with the weight of her grim investigation, Ann begins to slip into something like a nervous breakdown filled with strange visions culminating in a forest chase in which she follows the figure of a young girl in a bear suit, eventually falling into a grove next to a strange sparkly mushroom.

Anocha takes us on an odyssey through contemporary Thailand all the while holding 1976 in the back of the frame. From Ann we jump to Peter (Arak Amornsupasiri), whom we meet as a tabacco farmer only to realise he’s also a much lusted after singer/actor/model with a complicated love life and media set friends. Peter’s story seems unrelated but then it turns out he might be up for a part in Ann’s movie (written for him, in director speak at least as one of his less tactful friends points out), but more than that they’re connected by the shadowy figure of an invisible working class woman, Nong (Atchara Suwan), whom we first met serving coffee to Ann and Teaw at a rural bar but now switches between waitressing at a country club, bussing at riverboat diner, and cleaning toilets at a gym. Unseen as it is, it is her private revolution which ultimately forces a cinematic reset as the screen dissolves into dizzying disruption only to morph into the true beauty of Thailand’s untouched natural vistas.

Ann intends to film “a drama of sorts” about the events of 1976. An early scene exposes Anocha’s more subtle motive as Ann stages a reconstruction of an act of state brutality. Students lie on their bellies, stripped of their shirts and with hands tied behind backs while soldiers with guns bark at them to keep their faces on the floor. We think this is a flashback – an objective capture of objective truth, but we’re wrong, this is a scene from Ann’s movie and it takes a few liberties with the tale later told by Teaw in which she talks about seeing her fellow students in a similar situation on but a football pitch rather than an indoor hanger. Similarly, we get the first scene again half way through with slightly different lines as two entirely different actresses inhabit the roles of Ann and Teaw. The house is now more opulent, the women more conventionally beautiful and elegantly dressed. We film “the truth”, but we can’t help “colour correcting” it towards that which seems prettier than the way we really view things.

“The truth” is a similarly difficult concept to pin down. Ann is fascinated by the massacre but from her rather privileged, largely apolitical viewpoint she can’t quite understand it. She asks Teaw banal questions about her student life – boyfriends, her parents, the gradually unfolding horror of it all. In one particularly tone deaf moment, she marvels at Teaw as a piece of “living history” – a first hand witness to the (failed) revolution. No, Teaw tersely points out, she is merely “a survivor”. Tellingly, Teaw’s early monologues do not quite tally with her later ones, but asked on her current views towards her past self and her more engaged generation she simply replies that where they saw injustice, the young rose to oppose it. They wanted to make things right – unlike the young of today. Ann obsesses over a failed revolution yet regards herself as an empty vessel who “appropriates the lives of others” for her films. She pithily asks a local waitress where the beans come from for her coffee but doesn’t seem to know what to do with the impressive answer that they’re a locally sourced variety brokered by an American living nearby who speaks excellent Thai right down to mastery of the local dialect. Her concerns are surface ones whereas Teaw felt her concerns to be deeper and more important – her friends died for them, but then nothing in particular came of it.

The camera lies repeatedly, from the restaged footage to ever the apparent reframing of “reality” and our own inability to discern one from the other. Peter’s life is perfect, but then perhaps it’s not or at any rate, he’s subject to the same vagaries of fate as the rest of us. Nong, the working class woman may be one girl trapped in a casual employment nightmare or a symbol of the faceless masses who are largely ignored by the likes of Peter and his friends and even by the well meaning Ann, gazing out into a world which they can barely touch. Cinema is not a place for objective truths but for emotional ones – a ghost can be interrogated, its existence explained, but it cannot be exorcised, the film traps it in concentric mirrors, forever distorting its reflection.


Released in the UK by Day for Night

Original trailer (English subtitles)