The environmental crisis facing those who live in the Mekong delta is both a sobering and an oft-forgotten reflection of the patterns of human behaviour and global climate change. The Mekong River is one of the most polluted waterways in the world. It is estimated that it transports around 40 thousand tonnes of plastic into the world’s oceans each year. Changing climate patterns result in the increase of sediment loss, increased salinity, and the inevitable erosion of riverbanks and the death of fish and other marine life. Aggressive infrastructure development on the Mekong has worsened the effects of climate change and all five of these films engage directly with the impact that this is having on both the river itself and the human communities that live alongside it.
Mekong 2030 was produced by the Luang Prabang Film Festival. LPFF showcases the cinema of ten ASEAN-member countries (Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Lao PDR, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam) and, in 2019, developed the Mekong 2030 film project. The film clearly has awareness about the plight of the Mekong Delta as a central tenant and, as you could expect, all the films offer a different vision of the complexities facing the river and its communities.
Soul River, by Cambodian director Kulikar Sotho offered a cautionary tale on greed, distrust and the impact that climate change is having on Cambodia. When a hunter discovers an ancient Ankor statue, he and a local security guard go on a river trip with the hunters long- suffering wife, to try to sell the statue. Siem Riep province, the site of the Ankor temple complexes, has seen a vast amount of development that has resulted in the pronounced environmental degradation of the local area. The linkage of the preservation of the Ankor past whilst destroying the future is one of the key ironies that Soul River aims to show.
The Laotian offering, The Che Brother (Anysay Keola), has specific resonance to the current COVID pandemic as we visit a world that has been overtaken by a deadly plague outbreak. Three siblings find themselves in dispute when their elderly mothers blood turns out to be a valuable commodity to international corporation aiming to create a cure. The infrastructural development of the Mekong is most clearly referenced in The Forgotten Voices of the Mekong (Sai Naw Kham, Myanmar). When a community leader invites a mine (we assume international but this is never openly expressed) into the region as a means to try to bring money, jobs and development into a small traditional community results in a poisoned river and a community divided.
Thai director Anocha Suwichakornpong is probably the most well knows of the directors features in the collection. Her works Mundane History (2009), By the Time it Gets Dark (2016) and Krabi 2562 (2019) are heavily inspired by the socio-political realities of contemporary Thailand. In The Line, we see an artist prepare to open an exhibition of animism and the river as she thinks about the role that river, and the perception of time and place is offers, has been engaged with in art. The Vietnamese director Pham Ngoc Lân presents a more romantic orientated finale to the film. In The Unseen River, a middle-aged woman seeks out a lover she has not seen in decades as a young couple visit a riverside monastery to try to find a cure for insomnia. In a fitting ending, the film concludes with a young Monk sitting by the river crying, his family had downed in the Mekong but, sitting by the river, he can feel close to them once more.
Whilst you can pick holes into some aspects of all the films (acting is quite bad in a couple of places) one thing that unites all the films is that they are beautiful to watch. The Mekong River itself is the central character and all the films offer wide-sweeping shots of the river as an endless presence inside the films. Humans are shown as small, fallible and highly dependent on the river for their survival. Those who live along the Mekong are inexorably linked to it and watching the river flow through all the films we are reminded that something needs to be done to protect this important waterway. The diversity of approaches to this topic is fascinating and offers a vision of a potential unity of the inhabitant on the lower Mekong as they seek to warn the global audience about the ecological crisis taking place.
Kate Taylor-Jones is Senior Lecturer in East Asian Studies in the School of East Asian Studies, University of Sheffield. Whilst her academic work explores various topics including the cinema of colonial Japan and girlhood in East Asian cinema, her guilty pleasure is any film that promises to give her advice on how to survive the apocalypse.