Is it possible to live without past or future, exist entirely within the pureness of the now? Anocha Suwichakornpong contemplates the bubble existence in her complex debut, Mundane History (เจ้านกกระจอก, Jao Nok Krajok). Class conflict jostles with the fading grandeur of a declining bourgeoisie while two young men lament their broken dreams, one believing himself a prisoner of his privilege and the other trapped by economic inequality. Yet despite their differences, the familial disconnections, and the austerity of their “soulless” environment, a connection is eventually formed making way for a rebirth, new life birthed in the ashes of the old.
Pun (Arkaney Cherkam), a nurse from a humble background, has travelled from the north to take a job as the full time carer for the son of a wealthy man, Ake (Phakpoom Surapongsanuruk), recently paralysed from the neck down after a mysterious accident. As Pun tells an intimate acquaintance, perhaps his sister, on the telephone, the house is beautiful but drenched in hopelessness and everyone within it seemingly dead inside.
Moody and resentful, Ake is now a virtual prisoner within his father’s household. Enraged by his new found impotence, he treats Pun with contempt, ironically enough embodying the role of the young master which is perhaps the key to his anger with his distant, austere father who has essentially outsourced his son’s care and then had him walled up at home like a guilty secret. Ake angrily refuses visitors, either embarrassed by his disability or not wanting to witness their pity, and spends his days doing nothing at all but staring blankly into the middle distance, unable to reconcile himself to the terrifying “mundanity” of his repetitive, unchanging existence.
As Ake becomes used to Pun’s gentle presence and allows himself to be cared for, a friendship begins to arise. Both men dreamed of becoming writers, one developing an interest in photography and the other film, but neither of them found their dreams fulfilled. Ake’s sense of defeat is palpable as he finds himself literally trapped by his father’s legacy, unable to escape the claustrophobic world of the family home and consumed by resentment as he convinces himself that his dream of becoming a film director is now unattainable thanks to his disability. Pun, meanwhile, is equally melancholy, perhaps secretly resentful but outwardly making the best of the hand he’s been dealt. From a humble background and orphaned young with siblings to support, his artistic dreams were taken from him by bad luck and socio-economic oppression though it hasn’t killed his kindly heart.
The austere coldness of Ake’s father and the mansion’s emotional deadness perhaps represent an older generation’s longing for the safeties of an authoritarian world of rigid class boundaries and feudalistic loyalties. Ake’s housekeeper, the prim and proper Somjai (Anchana Ponpitakthepkij), is a relic of this all but forgotten world – a career servant who has silently watched Ake grow as her own youth faded and finally decides to puncture the class divide only to ensure its survival in urging Ake to maintain his stiff upper lip and avoid giving in to despair. Somjai resents Pun’s awkward, liminal status in the house as the only other member permitted to walk freely in the upstairs world and seeks to him keep down, eating with the other servants where he belongs. Pun, like the cook Kaew – also a northerner, doubts he can stay in this world indefinitely, already tired of its energy sapping rigidity and entrenched class-based social codes.
Ake’s resentment towards his father is also a rebellion against his old fashioned authoritarianism which stifles the natural desire of the young for freedom. Now literally unable to escape unaided, Ake feels as if his father has trapped him, deliberately, within the confines of his own value system with no possibility of salvation. The house is, in a sense, the eternal present that Pun and Ake talk about in one of their few moments of blissful togetherness as they lie alone on the grass lawn staring at the blue sky, but the inertia crushes them, driving young men to despair. A trip to the planetarium coupled with Ake’s youthful student films provides an opportunity for rebirth if only in destruction. Stars burn out, destroy themselves, but become nebulas in the process. Anocha Suwichakornpong’s fragmentary narrative is indeed nebulised, pulsing in brief fragments until the whole somehow connects and sparks into life. The spiritual rebirth echoes the political, the desire of youth to break free reasserts itself and the mundane history of an ordinary life regains its cosmic grandeur.
Original trailer (English subtitles)