If you feel that the sub-genre of the inspirational drama about a disabled person finding a reason to continue living due to their relationship with an understanding carer has become nothing more than a well-intentioned cliché, then Anocha Suwichakornpong’s wonderful debut feature Mundane History will be a welcome surprise. Ake (Phakpoom Surapongsanuruk) is a young man from a wealthy family who has been paralyzed from the waist down in an unspecified accident. He is rehabilitated at home, an isolated estate which is staffed with a maternal housekeeper, a cook, and a groundskeeper. The new addition to the household is Pun (Arkaney Cherkam), the live-in nurse who has been hired by Ake’s politely distant father Thanin (Paramej Noiam) to take care of his son and also serve as his physiotherapist. At first, there are few exchanges between Ake and Pun, as the patient shows little interest in watching television or other time-passing activities, and the nurse even falls asleep during his shift. Ake is also prone to outbursts, throwing cutlery and insisting that Pun should stop looking at him. Pun has trouble adjusting to the occasionally stifling atmosphere of the estate: talking to his partner over the phone, he describes the people around him as ‘soulless’ and expresses concern that he may not be able to last for long in his current position. However, his efforts to engage Ake in conversation, initially about career aspirations and later on a more philosophical level regarding the mysteries of the cosmos, lead to friendship.
Perhaps aware of audience familiarity with the established carer-patient formula, Suwichakornpong plays with related assumptions. Working with Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s regular editor Lee Chatametikool, she presents events in non-linear fashion, with the opening credits not appearing until the fifteen minute mark, while discordant music by the bands Furniture and The Photo Sticker Machine is used to suddenly break the languid mood. Mundane History is the kind of film that is often described as meditative due to its relaxed pacing, long periods of silence, and cutaways to sunlight streaming through trees, or a burst of bad weather. However, there is a hushed tension to the proceedings, hinting at conflicts which largely remain unresolved: Thanin seems to be burdened by unfortunate circumstances that pre-date his son’s accident, such as the passing of his wife, and the cook comments, ‘They must have karma from their past lives’ when reflecting on the misfortune of her employer. Rearranging the chronology of Abe and Pun’s interactions suggests that these characters exist in a limbo state. Pun asks Ake, ‘Is it possible to live without a past?’ Ake replies with a further question, ‘Is it possible to live without a future?’ When the cook states that she might be moving on soon, without mentioning where her next post might be, Mundane History takes on an ethereal quality which is reinforced by a the few scenes that occur beyond the estate, visits to an observatory and a temple which are strangely free of people, aside from the principal characters.
While the film may have the feel of a waking dream, it is certainly not removed from the realms of social commentary. Ake’s stubborn withdrawal from contact with others – insisting on eating all meals in his room and refusing to allow two family members who have come to visit to see him – suggests a stigma surrounding the disabled in Thai culture that makes him want to retreat from the world. Although the father is rich, he does not adjust the family home for Ake’s benefit, with Pun carrying the patient around rather than utilising lifts or ramps. Pun resides with the other members of staff in separate quarters, and the help is rarely seen directly engaging with the master of the house, although Pun does receive occasional dinner invitations. Yet the main concern here is clearly the Buddhist cycle of birth, death, and reincarnation, as illustrated when Surapongsanuruk shifts to the perspective of Thanin to show a patchwork of his memories of Ake’s childhood and his son’s hospitalisation following the accident. While lying on the grass during a sunny afternoon, Pun asks Ake, ‘How did the accident happen?’ Surapongsanuruk abruptly cuts to the next scene before Ake can answer, as the specifics of such matters are unimportant in the grand scheme of things. Those wishing to fully immerse themselves in Suwichakornpong’s universe should obtain the UK DVD release of Mundane History from Second Sight, which not only features an exclusive interview with the director, but also includes her award-winning short film Graceland (2006).