Saturday, November 7, 2009

WFFBKK '09 review: Mundane History

  • Directed by Anocha Suwichakornpong
  • Starring Phakpoom Surapongsanurak, Arkaney Cherkham, Paramej Noieam
  • Opening film of the 7th World Film Festival of Bangkok, November 6, 2009
  • Wise Kwai's rating: 5/5

Like a jazz saxophone solo, Mundane History wails. It circles around, repeats patterns and doubles back on itself. It starts and stops yet also flows. It reaches highs that zoom into outer space, into the heart of a supernova, and comes crashing back down to Earth with a big splat.

Taking the idea of non-linear storytelling to new heights, Mundane History begins in the middle and ends with a beginning.

It's a startling debut feature from Anocha Suwichakornpong. Her 2006 Columbia University thesis short Graceland is the first and so far only Thai film to be selected for the Cinefondation shorts program at the Cannes Film Festival. She's made some other pretty cool and weird shorts, but I don't think anyone expected a film like this.

Then again, everything she's done up to now has had a certain precision and shown to be the work of a sure, steady hand. So perhaps she was holding back, waiting to spring this one on us, and leave everyone flabbergasted.

It was certainly a smashing opener for the 7th World Film Festival of Bangkok, electrifying even with its opening chords of distortion-heavy rock guitar. (Great music by the way, from the Photo Sticker Machine and Furniture.)

As pieced together through the chronologically fractured timeline, the story is about a young man named Ake who is paralyzed from the waist down after an accident. A male nurse, Pun, is hired to care for him. Pun is a chunky guy, with big biceps that are necessary, because he has to carry Ake around in the two-story house that doesn't have ramps or a lift.

Ake is the scion of an upper-class family. The only parent around, though not very much, is his father, who is kind but distant. There's a stern, maternal housekeeper, a bubbly cook and a groundskeeper-guard. Pun the nurse lives with the servants in their quarters. The estate is a nice enough place, but is showing signs of age.

The film -- Thai title Jao Nok Krajok (เจ้านกกระจอก) -- is heavy with metaphor. Anocha has said that one thing it comments about is Thailand's treatment of disabled people.

"They are like nok krajok [sparrows], a common bird found everywhere in Thailand. We catch these birds then release them to make merit yet we think of them as insignificant even though they are everywhere. That's why I chose this name for the film," she explained in a recent Daily Xpress article.

The repeated patterns and non-linear storyline are meant to fit with the daily life of a paralyzed person, in which each day is the same and things that were said before are said again. The frustration over the mind-numbing routine is symbolized in a revealing bathtub scene involving Ake that is notable and probably historic for Thai cinema.

There were fears of censorship because of that scene, but happily that one made it through.

Anocha has also said that all the characters in her film, including the house, could be seen as allegories to Thailand. Just what parts each character plays is probably something each person who sees this movie will appreciate having to figure out for themselves.

But it's hard to not share one piece of dialogue.

Pun, talking on the phone to someone about his new job, says that the house is beautiful, but the people in it are soulless.

I don't know about that. That Mundane History has been made is evidence that there may indeed be a soul, somewhere.

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