Initial Thoughts on "Mundane History"

in 14th Pusan International Film Festival

by Davide Cazzaro

The days immediately following a film festival tend to be characterised by an “odd” feeling. Aside from physical and mental fatigue, I find myself pleasingly trapped by images and moments that, consciously or unconsciously, I have absorbed during the event. What follows is a sketch of some post-festival thoughts on Mundane History, the debut of Thai female director Anocha Suwichakornpong, whose ambitious narrative and carefully constructed sequences not only stood out among the good works premiering in Pusan’s New Currents section, but also impressed me in many ways.

It is hard to write about Mundane History without compromising the pleasure of discovering how a fairly simple family drama centred around the relationship between a widowed, elusive father and his young only son manages to acquire strong allegorical (or even “cosmic,” as critic Kong Rithdee suggests) reverberations.

Described by the director as her “maiden voyage into the troubled waters that is contemporary Thailand,” the film is mostly set in a once-grand bourgeois manor in Bangkok. It records the events which follow (but also precede) an unseen and almost unmentioned car accident which has left the son, Ake, a paraplegic. Thanin, the father, hires a young male nurse named Pun to take care of the bed- and wheelchair-bound son. The relationship between the three men, with Ake becoming increasingly resentful of his father’s growing openness with Pun, leads the entire narrative.

The withholding of the tragic turning point in Ake’s life allowed the director to focus on the condition of her protagonist: recording not only his environment, activities, and the people around him, but his perceptions, memories, desires and anger. Ake’s condition is mirrored in the non-linear structure of the film, which is composed of six macro-sequences, roughly fifteen minutes each, which slide back and forth in time to slowly transform the house and its residents into a synecdoche of the Thai nation, obliquely revealing what lurks beneath the daily life depicted onscreen. In this contect, attentive viewers will notice the striking resemblance between the actor playing the patriarch to Thailand’s revered monarch King Bhumibol. This is just one of the aspects (the others being references to Thai politics, society and religion) which make Mundane History particularly daring. It will be very interesting to follow the film’s reception in Thailand.

These same viewers will also appreciate the elaborate (detractors might say excessive) craft on the editing and sound design by Lee Chatametikool and Akritchalerm Kalayanamitr respectively, two of Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s regular, virtuoso collaborators. Their work, among other elements, transforms the house into an almost ghostly place.

What to make of the film’s coda, an intimate, ten-minute cinematic journey around and beyond the film’s dramatic arc up to that point? Without spoiling any details, the director seems to shift to a commentary on the dangerously unbalanced state of Thai society, which is seen as approaching the end of a long cycle. This condition might be considered either exceptional or mundane, like the death of a star or the “miracle” of human life…

This film is captivating in its combination of the political and the lyrical. It is political in its consistent interweaving of the personal and the social and in the increasingly overt reflection of the “hic et nunc” state of Thailand in general and Thai society in particular. It is lyrical in its exploration of the main characters and their relationship with the place in which they are immersed, or even trapped – the place becomes a character in its own right. Mundane History is one of the most outstanding directorial debuts I have encountered in recent years.

Edited by Lesley Chow