Mundane History is a slippery film, and deliberately so. Not in the sense that it wishes to elude its audience, but rather that it proves difficult to pin down when it comes to the written word. Tellingly its life began not as a conventional screenplay, but rather as the diary of one of its characters. Writer and director Anocha Suwichakornpong, wishing to learn more from her newly-hatched idea, wrote down his thoughts and feelings and discerned a little backstory. Yet this was merely a jumping off point, the seed from which her debut feature could grow. There is no diary in the finished film, Suwichakornpong’s initial efforts instead being repositioned and expanded upon into something equally intimate and yet also decidedly grand. Words ceased to become the driving force, having now been replaced by images and edits. In doing so Mundane History is able to express much the same, albeit with greater lucidity and a more subtle touch. Consequently this is a film arguably better seen than read about, though here’s an attempt to do it some justice.
At the centre are two men of a roughly similar age. One has recently become paralysed from the waist down, the other is his male nurse and physical therapist. Their relationship is going through its uneasy opening stages as we are introduced, neither man yet sure of the other, but also separate on the social scale. Ake, the patient, has found himself practically a prisoner in his father’s sizeable Bangkok residence, complete with housemaids as well as his physical therapist. Pun, the nurse, has travelled from the rural north for this position but finds his new place of employment “soulless” and wonders how long he will last. The contrast between the two men is pointed, their bedrooms alone demonstrating the gulf. Ake has luxury, hired help, a mechanised bed, book-lined walls and a pet turtle in a fish tank; Pun’s sleeping quarters must make do with little more than a mattress and a lamp. And yet they gradually form some kind of alliance as Ake’s sullenness, frustration and withdrawal (the latter, most pointedly, from his father) give way to acceptance.
As the relationship thaws, so too revelations begin to appear. Both men had aspirations to become writers, it transpires, whilst Ake studied at film school. Pun also admits that he has a tendency to doze off and talk in his sleep. In essence, then, a creator and a dreamer – and it is these qualities which Suwichakornpong allows to inform her execution. Mundane History, from the off, is incredibly dreamlike. The opening line of dialogue – “Shall I turn off the lights?” – is a fitting one given the mood and it cues up an especially blissful passage from Hush, the Dead are Dreaming, an epic track from Malaysian post-rock outfit Furniture. This moment repeats itself minutes later, the first in a number of lapses, repetitions, flashbacks and flash-forwards that not only keep us on our toes, but also allow Suwichakornpong to deftly open up her picture beyond that of a simple two-hander. Not that we should underestimate the excellent performances of Phakpoom Surapongsanuruk (playing Ake) and Arkaney Cherkam (Pun) or the solid anchor which they provide for their director.
Suwichakornpong has acknowledged the input of editor Lee Chatametikool in determining Mundane History’s structure. Chatametikool is best known for his work with Apichatpong Weerasethakul (they have been collaborators since Blissfully Yours) and the influence clearly shows. Just as Weerasethakul has a tendency to remake and remodel within his own narratives (the two corresponding halves of Syndromes and a Century, say, or the twinned relationships in Tropical Malady) so Mundane History is able to reconstruct seemingly unconnected and quite possibly even banal moments into a far richer concoction. Footage from, presumably, one of Ake’s student films can act as an explanation and/or premonition of the accident which has left him paralysed. (We never learn the true cause.) Or an unheralded flash-forward to Bangkok Planetarium can introduce beautiful computer generated imagery of an exploding star – all of a sudden we are out in the cosmos, set once more to an excerpt from Hush, the Dead are Dreaming, and the dimensions of this seemingly intimate tale have grown immensely. Without the exact bearings or the whys and wherefores of such footage (explanations always come later, if at all) we are left to draw our own conclusions, to make our own connections from these unexpected interpolations, and that’s a thrilling experience.
Importantly, Mundane History insists that we contemplate and that we explore. The sedate mood as set out by the occasional bursts of Furniture is matched in the attention to the silences between Ake and those around him as well as Chatametikool’s highly controlled editing rhythms. (Whilst the various jumps and lapses may sound tricksy on paper, the reality is anything but.) Such spaces allow the film to breathe and for its themes and ideas to slowly emerge. Notions of rebirth arrive, although we are left to discern exactly where meanings should lie. Does Ake’s accident constitute a kind of rebirth? Or perhaps an acceptance of his fate would satisfy such a description? Maybe we should be looking further afield to the political unrest in Thailand at the time of production (real-life footage, presumably finding its in-film origins in another of Ake’s student shorts, shows Yellow Shirts protesting in Bangkok from early 2009) or further still to that exploding star? In the hands of Suwichakornpong it becomes all of these things, a meditation that is at once personal, political and universal. As its title so clearly suggests, Mundane History is both intimate and epic.
With no announcements currently made for the rest of 2012, it looks as though Mundane History may very well be Second Run’s final disc of the year and a fine conclusion to another excellent roster these past ten months. (Late November will see a new boxed-set, The Czechoslovakian New Wave, containing three previously available titles: The Cremator, Diamonds of the Night and Intimate Lighting.) As we have come to expect from the label, this latest release comes with an excellent presentation, an exclusive director interview filmed especially for this DVD, accompanying booklet with contextualising essay, newly translated subtitles and eye-catching artwork. We also find some additional bonuses too: Anocha Suwichakornpong’s 2006 short film, Graceland, plus an optional DD5.1 soundtrack mix and original trailer. Even at a glance it’s immediate that this is an impressive package.
The disc, encoded for all regions, presents the film in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio (anamorphically enhanced) and with the choice of soundtracks (stereo as well as the 5.1). It has been sourced from a new director-approved HD master with both audio and video in excellent shape. As should be expected from such a comparatively new release (Mundane History received its premiere at the Busan Film Festival in South Korea on the 10th of October, 2009) both are essentially pristine. Detail is excellent for a standard def presentation and the distinctive colour schemes – centred around greens and blues – ably reproduced. The soundtrack, in either form, copes perfectly well with the silences and the more expressive moments. Subtitles, meanwhile, are optional.
Suwichakornpong’s interview (conducted in Thai with optional English subs) provides plenty of welcome background, both to her own career – she was educated in both the UK and the United States – and the main feature. Amongst other things, she talks us through the very specific meanings of the original Thai title Jao Nok Krajok, her working relationship with Lee Chatametikool and offers up some tantalising hints of her next project. Just as interesting is her early short Graceland, which once again finds Chatametikool in the editing booth and once again demonstrates some ambiguous editing rhythms. The tale of an overnight encounter between a troubled woman and an Elvis impersonator (though nowhere near as ‘wacky’ as that may sound), it delivers its story in a linear fashion and yet asks its audience to fill in its many space. Perhaps not quite so satisfying as Mundane History, it nevertheless remains a welcome addition and one, I suspect, that will satisfy a number of repeat viewings.
Finally, a mention of the booklet and Carmen Gray’s newly commissioned essay. Be warned that it necessarily contains numerous spoilers and should be approached only after an initial viewing. I say necessarily as the only conceivable way of closely analysing Mundane History is through a near scene-by-scene account accompanied by the relevant teasing out of meaning and context. The structure of the film is so precise that it would be practically impossible to provide any genuine insight otherwise. So do be sure to pop the disc into the player first and then open the booklet. Suwichakornpong’s director’s statement – a brief two-paragraph addition also included – is safe to read beforehand.