Setting The Scene: The Urgent Issues Of The Mekong River Region Today
We here at Sinema believe that films are more than just entertainment, and that they have the ability to map out the (to borrow from Siegfried Kraceur) “unconscious motivations” of a country no matter how apolitical the films might seem. ‘Setting The Scene’ is a new column where we give a brief introduction of today’s pressing political and social issues, and uncover the insights that might be found in the films about them.
From the Nile to the Ganges, rivers have been paramount in the development of civilisations. In Asia, running through China and five Southeast Asian countries, generations have depended on the Mekong River for survival.
In recent years, it has become a hotbed of geopolitical tension with accusations of China’s dams upstream destroying the livelihoods of those downstream, coupled with global environmental issues. With almost 70 million living in the region, the river is at risk of being the latest horrifying example of the dire consequences with overexploitation.
The five Southeast Asian countries affected – Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, Myanmar, Cambodia – may be a part of ASEAN but issues surrounding the Mekong are hardly brought up and tackled. This inevitably trickles down to the populace, with the magnitude and urgency of these problems not necessarily felt by the rest of Southeast Asia – much less the world.
This is where the arts can play an important role, bringing to light these typically unilluminated issues while allowing themselves to be felt through creative expressions. With their lives so intrinsically linked to the depleting river and the limited opportunities they have to create, Southeast Asian films about the Mekong infuse their works with an urgency that should be heeded as the world draws closer towards more environmental crises.
Brief Background of the Mekong River
The Mekong River, the world’s twelfth longest river, is the food basin for people from across six countries. The river starts from the Tibetan Plateau, flowing from China before it meets the South China Sea at Vietnam. Today, the Mekong River runs through many poverty-stricken regions depending on the river for livelihood and survival.
Since the 1990s, China has built dams upstream to serve as water reservoirs and hydroelectricity to support the growth of the largely impoverished Yunnan province. This has led to these dams having extensive control of the river’s flow, with countries downstream accusing the Chinese of withholding waters and threatening their food and economic security. China has consistently fired back and pointed at droughts as the underlying reasons for the shrinking river.
While the environmental effects to the Mekong are undeniable, the scale of damage to each Southeast Asian country’s economic and food security varies. In sum, fisheries from the Lower Mekong Basin alone are valued at an estimated USD$17 billion a year, amounting to three percent of the combined GDP of Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Thailand.
Vietnam, in particular, depends on the Mekong for its positions as a leading rice and coffee exporter. Not only would this affect Vietnam’s economy, damage to the Mekong could also drive up the global cost of rice and coffee with Vietnam’s lower yield. This is not discounting the instabilities that will arise from the region due to population growth and sapped livelihoods.
For China, the dams are an important font for development, while its fiercest critics would accuse the Chinese of “holding the region hostage” for controlling the flow of water.
The Mekong River Commission (MRC), an intergovernmental organisation consisting of the governments of Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam, was formed in 1995 to coordinate the sustainable management of the river and its resources. However, the organisation’s effectiveness has been spotty, with no end in sight to the issues of the region.
It might seem only natural for the Southeast Asian countries affected to unite and come up with a solution but that is hardly the case in reality, especially after factoring past conflicts throughout history between them. The MRC have been toothless in preventing the inherent dog-eat-dog nature of countries with Laos and Vietnam each having plans to construct their own dams (with some financed by the Chinese), further damaging the Mekong. Furthermore, all of these countries rely heavily on trade with China for its economic growth and would hardly want to rock the boat.
Beyond the political, the river is also facing down larger environmental issues such as climate change, changing weather conditions, and overfishing. What has connected these countries has been a steep point of division between them. Equally ironic is with how those affected the most by these tensions have had the least say in the issues.
This is where film can potentially fill the gap, with filmmakers of the region possibly channeling how everyday people feel about the massive issue onto their works.
‘Operation Mekong’: How Do Chinese Films See the Region?
Upstream, the Mekong River is known to the locals as the Lancang River. While there are certainly thousands of films – both short and feature length films – that relate to the river, one blockbuster towers above the rest within Chinese cinema.
With its winning mix of over-the-top action and compelling nationalism, Dante Lam’s Operation Mekong (2016) was a record-smashing hit in China. It is loosely based on the Mekong River massacre of 2011, starting out with the brutal killing before spinning off into a fictional high-octane war against drug lords.
Most of the film is set in the area surrounding the Golden Triangle region of the Mekong River, an area where the borders of Thailand, Laos, and Myanmar meet. It is also one of the world’s largest opium-producing areas, with drug gangs dominating its waters. Operation Mekong pulls no punches in highlighting this fact.
It unsubtly paints a lawless region complete with drug-addled child soldiers and drug dens, all framed as a threat to China’s national security and the country’s social fabric. This sets the stage for a squad of elite Chinese soldiers to (rather thoughtlessly) blaze through the Southeast Asian streets as a force of good.
It even features a very on-the-nose portrayal of the Thai river police early on in the film, complete with low angles and ominous thunder in the background, which has led to the Operation Mekong’s ban in Thailand.
Through Operation Mekong’s overwhelming domestic success, it might not be a stretch to suggest that how the film sees the region is similar to the public’s view. News of the massacre sparked massive public outcries of anger and frustration, making the film heroes’ pyrrhic victory a memorable emotional stinger.
The film offers no separation between the Southeast Asian countries’ lawless quarters and the rest of it, further blurred by its real and raw starting point. Together, it moulds an impression of the region that may be cemented by the emotional strings it pulls.
Perspectives From The Ground: How Do Southeast Asian Films See The Region?
While each differ culturally and do butt heads politically, the films from the five Southeast Asian countries along the Mekong River are united in their focus on the perspectives of their everyday life.
There are disproportionate filmmaking opportunities between them. Thailand and Vietnam have established themselves as regional powerhouses, while Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia are slowly emerging. Together, they embody unique and essential replies to the foreign films about their region. It would be a monumental task to discuss even the highlights from all five countries but here are just a few of the most prominent works.
With Mekong Hotel (2012), Thai auteur Apichatpong Weerasathakul uses the riverbanks of Mekong as the stage for the film’s surreal and at times tense exploration of large existential questions. As one of the most unique voices in cinema today, Mekong Hotel can sometimes be too strange or even too layered in what it is trying to say. Nevertheless, its acknowledgement of the Mekong’s importance is strongly felt, with its use of the seemingly calm river as a bold metaphor for both life and death.
Vietnamese films, with their long lineage of success in the festival circuit, have for decades offered sharp divergences to the narratives of the West. Hong Sen Nguyen’s The Abandoned Field: Free Fire Zone (1979) showcases the peaceful life along the Mekong, before contrasting it with a horrifying sequence of a young family barely escaping their river home from invading Hueys.
Quang Binh Nguyen Phan’s The Floating Lives (2010) and Nguyễn Võ Nghiêm Minh’s Buffalo Boy (2004) both use the volatility of the Mekong as apt backdrops to intense family dramas, whose lives are as uncertain as the unforgiving river.
(Still of ‘Red Mekong’ / Image credit: Lao New Wave Cinema Productions)
Despite being comparatively younger than the rest of the region, Laos cinema has recently made their mark on the international stage. Currently in production is Red Mekong by Anysay Keola, the founder of filmmaking collective Lao New Wave Cinema. Told through the story of an unlikely cooperation between a Laotian and a Thai, the neo-noir film will tackle issues surrounding the Golden Triangle border, touching on the Lao – Thai relationship and China’s influence over Laos.
Another exciting collaboration within the region is MEKONG 2030 (2020), an anthology film that looks to envision the future of the Mekong River in 2030.
The film will feature five short stories directed by five filmmakers from across the region: Kulikar Sotho, Anysay Keola, Sai Naw Kham, Anocha Suwichakornpong, and Pham Ngoc Lan.
Through their lens, they present raw, compelling stories that not only channel the weight of the river’s destruction, but also illuminate insights into how each country’s cultural nuances respond to such a catastrophe. Lan’s The Unseen River, for example, examines the clash between tradition and modernity as represented through the people’s relation with the river.
An interview by Southeast Asia Globe with the participating filmmakers also revealed how the filmmaking process led them to witness firsthand the damage to the river and how it informed the urgency in their stories. MEKONG 2030, which will be the opening film of this year’s SeaShorts Film Festival, is a true primer in understanding the region, and a shining example of the powerful stories that can only be brought forth by Southeast Asian filmmakers.
Admittedly, the comparison between Operation Mekong and Southeast Asian films might not be entirely fair. Perhaps Southeast Asian filmmakers will be equally eager to embark on similar, rah-rah action thrillers steeped in propagandistic undertones if they had the budget and market to match. Nevertheless, the differences of tone in the cinema of China and Southeast Asia is stark, directly reflecting the power dynamics in the Mekong region.
For Southeast Asian films in particular, there is clear recognition of the river’s weight and importance. Their proximity has brought about unique narratives that juxtaposed their uncertain lives with the Mekong’s turbulence. While they might not all directly address the issues of the day, it is exactly through these quiet stories that serve as potent reminders that the generational home for millions are under severe threat.
MEKONG 2030 is at the forefront of picturing the scale of damage already wrought on millions, as told through stories crafted by filmmakers that call the region their home. Coupled with the global climate crisis, their situation is not unlike the rest of the world. It is perhaps through their films where the urgency of these countries’ plights are best translated, with warnings that should be heeded by everyone in the global community.
With the commodification of film equipment coupled with more opportunities and international collaborations, Southeast Asian cinema is shaping up to be an undeniable voice on the international stage. It is, perhaps, in the film world where some balance can be struck and assembled between the Southeast Asian countries and the titan upstream.
Catch MEKONG 2030 at the upcoming SeaShorts Film Festival, running online from 12 to 20 September, as its opening film. Now on its fourth edition, the festival is dedicated to showcasing Southeast Asian stories and emerging filmmaking talents from the region.
Festival passes are now available for purchase at $10 USD, which will give you access to a slew of short films from the region along with curated masterclasses and forums. Grab your festival passes now through this link. Follow the festival’s Facebook and Instagram pages for the latest updates and details.
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(Banner Image credit: Luang Prabang Film Festival)