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)

Dearest Sister (ນ້ອງຮັກ, Mattie Do, 2016)

dearest sister posterMarxist countries and horror movies often do not mix. Laos has only a fledgling cinema industry and Mattie Do, returning with her second film Dearest Sister (ນ້ອງຮັກ, Nong hak), is its only female filmmaker even if she finds herself a member of an extremely small group. Set in Laos it may be, but Dearest Sister also has something of the European gothic in its instantly recognisable tale of a good country girl fetching up in the city only to be treated like a poor relation and eventually corrupted by its dubious charms. Dearest Sister is a horror movie but one which places very real fears, albeit ones imbued with superstition, at the forefront of its tragedy.

Nok (Amphaiphun Phommapunya) is a poor girl from the country. She’s been given a good opportunity though one she perhaps would not have sought. She’ll be leaving her village and going to the big city to look after a distant relative whom she has never met. Stopping off at a temple to pray before she leaves, Nok’s boyfriend angrily skulks off, lamenting that she’ll be gone at least a year and will probably have found herself a European husband before the time is up.

When she arrives in the city Nok is met by an impatient European who turns out to be Jakob (Tambet Tuisk), the husband of her mysterious relative, Ana. Nok is to be a kind of paid companion, looking after Ana (Vilouna Phetmany) who is in poor health. Slowly losing her sight, Ana has strange episodes and frightening visions, sometimes injuring herself in a trance state that she will remember nothing of after she wakes up.

This is a land of ghosts but they’re less of the literal than the spiritual kind as Nok and Ana chase spectres of the same dream which continues to elude them both. Ana, it seems, is from a middle class background but her parents are quick enough to touch her husband for money they can use for material pleasures, barely acknowledging Ana’s ongoing health issues. Marrying Jakob perhaps means marrying out as well as up, but it hasn’t brought her the life of freedom she dreamed of even if it has made her more comfortable. Jakob’s behaviour flits between loving husband, impatient spouse, and controlling master as he, at one minute, appears to genuinely worry about his wife’s need for treatment and the next argues with a doctor about medicating her with the kind of drugs you only really hear about on TV.

When Nok arrives in the house she alters the dynamic. If Jakob wanted her to be a kind of human pet, keeping Ana company and perhaps keeping her sane in the process, his plan backfires. The two women are in someway related, though neither of them is aware precisely how (apparently they are distant cousins), but Nok has come there as an employee, not a guest. Caught between two worlds, Nok is not “family” enough to enjoy a free and friendly relationship with Jakob and Ana, but she’s not a servant either as Ana’s constant reminders that they have a maid to take care of the housework bare out. Playing the mistress, Ana is not a cruel harridan but is determined to exert her authority and so servants live outside the main house, while Nok lives “inside” – a key distinction but one which leaves her in a halfway home.

When she first arrives at Ana’s, Nok is an innocent country girl, fully intending to send the money she makes back to her family and rejects another maid’s suggestion of a night on the town because she has a boyfriend waiting for her back in the village. Skimming a small amount of money to pay for credit to use on her broken phone starts Nok off on a journey to the dark side as she gets distracted, misses the bank and buys lottery tickets with the money instead. A simple country girl, Nok does not quite know how to live the high class life (as the titters in a restaurant make her realise when she orders wine but doesn’t know why the waiter doesn’t pour a whole glass) but she wants it anyway.

Nok and Ana were not so different. Nok’s family only seem to ring her to ask where the money is and eventually the village life she’d begun to become nostalgic for seems to have forgotten her already. Tragically both women want the same thing which is to live comfortably, but also with love. Nok’s isolation drives her deeper into a cycle of avarice and resentment, whereas the imposed isolation of Ana’s illness deepens her sense of neurosis and mistrust of her new environment. Eventually greed mingles with dread as both women long to escape their fates but are resigned to the inevitability of their eventual downfall not just heralded by spirits but haunted by a culture.

Streaming in the UK exclusively on Shudder.

Original trailer (English subtitles)