Film

A River in Crisis Runs Through Southeast Asia

Five directors speculate on the uncertain future of the Mekong River in the anthology film Mekong 2030.

From Soul River (2020), dir. Kulikar Sotho (all images courtesy Luang Prabang Film Festival)

The longest river in Southeast Asia, the Mekong starts in the Chinese highlands and runs through six countries in all. It sustains both richly bio-diverse ecosystems and the livelihood of over 60 million people. Now, the Mekong is on the verge of complete ecological collapse. Faced with increasing strains from over-development, the communities living in the lower Mekong region have to contend with environmental destruction and fluctuating climate conditions. The possible futures for the river and those who depend on it are the focus of Mekong 2030, a new anthology produced by the Luang Prabang Film Festival.

A bleakly humorous fable on greed and exploitation, Soul River (Cambodia, directed by Kulikar Sotho) is dotted with shots of uprooted trees and turbulent waters created by the construction of dams. The displaced Klang lives in the ruins of his village after repeated floods have driven neighbors downstream. Forced to scavenge for survival, he is blackmailed into sharing the profit from a valuable statue he discovers. When told that the exploitation of the Mekong is crucial for developing the country, Klang’s anguished retort is: “Development? Where? I don’t see it!”

From The Che Brother (2020), dir. Anysay Keola

The traumatic extraction of value is seen more obliquely in The Che Brother (Laos, Anysay Keola). In an eerily prescient twist, it traces the title character’s homecoming in the middle of a deadly global pandemic. He learns that his sickly mother has a rare antibody in her system, and has become the focus of a bitter tussle between his siblings, who wish to sell her blood to a foreign company. Keola smartly maneuvers from direct criticism of the powers that be through allegory to avoid any censorship.

From The Forgotten Voices of the Mekong (2020), dir. Sai Naw Kham

More obvious is The Forgotten Voices of the Mekong (Burma, Sai Naw Kham), which examines the efforts of a newly elected village chief to bring modern developments to his impoverished town. While a local elder Grandma is vocal in her mistrust of the mining company that wishes to encroach on their community, she’s overruled by the rest, convinced by Charlie’s promises of a comfortable future. Shot naturalistically, the quiet harmony of the elder growing herbs and teaching a young boy their culture’s ancestral knowledge is juxtaposed with the chief’s frazzled meetings with investors.

From The Line (2020), dir. Anocha Suwichakornpong

The other two films are more abstract. In The Line, by Thai filmmaker Anocha Suwichakornpong, the opening of an upscale gallery’s exhibition about the Mekong is impeded when artist Tarika is dissatisfied with how her video installation has turned out. Meandering and thoughtful, the film probes at how the Mekong has been constructed through art and discourse. Tarika’s film within the film explores the Thai perception of time — the flow of the river  symbolizes how time can measure both space and transformation. The film envisions the Mekong as a constellational body of knowledge, made up of disparate nodes and subjectivities, and challenges the transactional, capitalistic view of the region.

From The Unseen River (2020), dir. Phạm Ngọc Lân

The Unseen River, by Vietnamese filmmaker Phạm Ngọc Lân, is a romantic meditation on the cyclical nature of history. It follows a middle-aged woman searching upstream for her long-lost lover, while a young couple travels goes downstream seeking treatment for a strange ailment. The film situates the Mekong as an active subject; we frequently see the river and its accompanying landscape by itself, unmoored from human presence. Whatever the vicissitudes of human relations, the river is the only constant. In one scene, a monk shares how since his family drowned in a flood, he has seen them in his dreams. It is impossible to disentangle the Mekong from the souls of those who live with it.

Mekong 2030′s cynical futurism and eco-criticism is refreshing for its diversity of voices,  as well as the solidarity it posits between the nations of the lower Mekong. Brimming with urgency, the anthology  poses a necessary question with an imminent deadline; now it is up to the world to answer.

Mekong 2030 screens as part of the Kota Kinabalu International Film Festival (September 9–12), and the Five Flavours Asian Film Festival (November 25 through December 2).

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