Apichatpong Weerasethakul's shorts are the only thing more confounding than his full-length works, and Cactus River is his most obscure in some time. A black-and-white "tribute" to the Mekong River, Cactus River documents one of Joe's actors, Jenjira Pongpas, as she lives out her daily routine with her husband, an American ex-pat she met online and recently married. Sounds innocuous, until Joe plays the film at a lower frame rate, making it jerk around like a silent as the audio track plays only the roar of wind on a poorly covered mic and pops that somehow manage to be louder than the white noise.
Joe tends to attach a brief explanation to his shorts, perhaps anticipating the viewer's bafflement. Not that his statements are entirely helpful: they tend to be as cryptic as the films themselves, though they do sometimes offer a clue to be interpreted. The director's synopsis for this short relates how Jenjira changed her name to Nach, which means "water." Nach lives on the bank of the Mekong, which she worries will dry up soon thanks to Chinese dams. Does that explain the title, then? That this surging body of water may soon become an arid bed of desert plants? And if Jenjira now calls herself water, is she the river's heir? Perhaps this 10-minute abstract posits a Thai Anna Livia Plurabelle.
As ever with Joe's work, Cactus River overflows with indelible, evocative images. The choppy rhythms of the frame rate slow when the camera settles upon the Mekong in the frantic opening montage, put at ease by the river's flow (or, alternately, drying up with a blocked-off source. Nach's husband watches Thai TV on mute, the flicker of Joe's high-contrast film obscuring the image on the TV into what almost looks like a nuclear cataclysm until a cactus can eventually be made out, looming over its surroundings in a low-angle shot. The final, still image cuts to color as Nach beckons out over the river. Rebirth is a key feature of Joe's films, from the bifurcated structure of Tropical Malady to the reincarnation-cum-genre-tour that was Uncle Boonmee. As such, the last shot could be the "In Memoriam" photo for the Mekong, but also the first documented photo of its new avatar.