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)

Ice Poison (冰毒, Midi Z, 2014)

“You know only too well that in Burma if we want to make money you either go to work in jade mines, but you can’t afford the trip, or you sell drugs” according to the cynical heroine of Midi Z’s Ice Poison (冰毒, Bīngdú) seducing an equally desperate farmer in an effort free herself from patriarchal oppression and reclaim her son from the family who bought her and refuse to let her go. 

In an ironic touch, the film begins and ends in fire as an unnamed young farmer (Wang Shin-hong) and his father (Zhou Cai Chang) burn their fields and harvest their crop only to lament their slender pickings. This year’s harvest has been poor and, according to the young man “everything is getting more expensive except the vegetables we grow”. Left with few options the old man and his son walk towards the town, calling in at various houses along the way gingerly asking for a loan to help make ends meet but everyone is in a similar position. The men of working age have all gone away to find employment, an older woman explaining that her husband is on a construction site while her son who returned from abroad has only been able to find work on a poppy farm and he won’t be paid until after the harvest is finished. Another woman explains that her son, unlike others, wanted to do things properly by applying for a work visa for Malaysia but was cheated by the broker, who then bribed the police when they reported him. Her son now intends to stay and get married which, perhaps surprisingly, she thinks is irresponsible when there’s no money and his older brother is still a bachelor. The last man relates the sorry tale of his son who was apparently poisoned in Thailand after spurning the advances of two local ladies and has since lost his mind. 

Shifting to his plan B, the old man plans to pawn his cow to borrow a scooter so his son can earn some money with a bike taxi, first asking the scooter’s owner for a loan but once again informed he’s strapped himself because one of his employees ran off and his China deal fell through. Rather than the scooter, he offers the young farmer a job, but they ultimately opt for a bloody bargain, placing the cow as a deposit under the agreement that if they can’t pay back the money for the scooter in a few months’ time the oil merchant may have it slaughtered though it breaks the old man’s heart. 

The young farmer had wanted to go and work in the jade mines, but his father discourages him not just because there’s war in the north but because everyone in the mines takes drugs and if he goes and gets himself hooked on meth where will they be then? The bike taxi business, however, does not exactly take off. The young man finds himself at the back of a crowd of pushier drivers literally blocking the exits of the buses that roll into town mobbing those attempting to disembark, but with such crushing poverty all around him it’s perhaps incongruous to assume many want to spend money on speedy transport. He finally manages to get a passenger, Sanmei (Wu Ke-xi), after realising she is also from the Chinese minority, driving her to a village where, it transpires, her grandfather lies dying, apparently waiting for her arrival and the burying clothes she brings with her from their ancestral home in China. The rites completed, she should go home but Sanmei doesn’t want to. As she tells her mother, she was tricked into a marriage to a much older man whose family are oppressively possessive, unwilling to let her bring her son to meet his grandmother for fear she wouldn’t come back. 

Hinting both at the crushing despair and the patriarchal strictures of their society, Sanmei’s mother tells her that she’s better off in China especially as her husband apparently treats her well enough when there are women who marry for love only to suffer domestic violence. But Sanmei keeps repeating that he’s not the man she loves and so she does not want to stay with him. What she wants is to reclaim her child and live an independent life in Burma where, she feels, there are better opportunities for making money. She’s determined to talk to her shady cousin, ignoring her mother’s advice not to get involved with him because he’s a notorious drug dealer. Her cousin indeed tells her that there’s money to be made for those who are bold in peddling “ice”, apparently the only the remaining marketable commodity. Before long she’s smoking it herself, roping in the young farmer who’s taken to making courier deliveries in the absence of passengers, telling him he’s simply ferrying her around and can claim plausible deniability of what it is she herself is transporting. 

Is Sanmei merely manipulating him, seducing the farmer to claim her new life in exploiting his boredom and despair, or was there perhaps a genuine connection born of mutual hopelessness that their poverty and impotence eventually destroys? Shooting in his own hometown, Midi Z paints a bleak picture of contemporary Burma as a scorched paradise in which the only sense of possibility lies in escape, employment abroad or drug-fuelled oblivion at home. Captured with documentary realism, Ice Poison eventually consumes our two heroes but its ultimate victim is a forgotten and unexpected one, nature dismembered at the hands of cruel and indifferent humanity. 


Ice Poison streams in the UK until 27th September as part of the Taiwan Film Festival Edinburgh.

International trailer (English subtitles)