“When a star with a small mass quietly loses energy, it becomes a white dwarf. It sheds its outer layers to form a nebula; a pale remnant of what it once was.” This may shed some cosmic light onto one aspect of what Thai director Anocha Suwichakornpong is getting at with her confounding feature debut, Mundane History (Jao Nok Krajok, 2009). However, a larger part of its true meaning still remains hidden behind its beautiful and languid visuals. Arkaney Cherkam plays Pun, a nurse that is brought into the home of the affluent Thanin (Paramej Noiam) to care for his recently paralysed son, Ake (Phakpoom Surapongsanuruk).
Surrounded by servants who he describes as soulless, Pun finds the house hard to stomach. With time, however, he does manage to make small breakthroughs with his patient who nevertheless remains dejected. Masquerading as a stripped-down family drama, Mundane History is in fact considerably more ambitious that plumbing for just one reading. It’s certainly possible, as the above narration accompanies a long closing montage, to read this as one of the director’s themes – the words sound conspicuously like they are describing Ake and his state since his accident.
There is much more to be found within the film’s brief runtime, but it remains cloaked in its own perplexing allusions to Thai history, Buddhist philosophy and the cosmos itself. Suwichakornpong, much like her fellow countryman Apichatpong Weerasethakul, is masterful in manipulating the mood of the piece and creating mesmerising visuals from seemingly everyday occurrences. Although dealing with the kind of weighty and profound topics that Weerasethakul is lauded for, Mundane History feels somewhat like his recent Mekong Hotel (2012) – full of atmosphere and serenity, whilst never really shedding light on its more esoteric themes.
There are some stunning sequences in the film, not least one in which we see a star dying. This may be intended to represent a brief glimpse inside Ake’s mind, allowing the audience to comprehend what he sees when he closes his eyes and thus why his inability to move causes him even greater distress – it’s never entirely clear though. So whilst there is much to revel in throughout Mundane History, its real meaning remains tantalisingly and frustratingly out of reach. Who knows what repeat viewing might reveal.