Wednesday, March 31, 2010

HKIFF Film review 影評: Mundane History 俗物人間

Original Thai title: เจ้านกกระจอก
Director: Anoncha Suwichakornpong อโนชา สุวิชากรพงศ์
Cast: Phakpoom Surapongsanurak, Arkaney Cherkham, Paramej Noiam
Length: 82 mins
Year: 2009


Films that attempt to link a metaphysical study of human life and death with the cosmos will always be ambitious. 2001: A Space Odyssey 2001太空漫遊 and Solaris 星球索拉羅斯 are fine examples. Mundane History fits in this strand, but Anoncha Suwichakornpong's uneven feature debut leaves more to be desired.

Ake (Phakpoom Surapongsanurak), a paraplegic from the waist down after an unexplained accident, is a frustrated young man whose dreams of becoming a film director are shattered. He doesn't talk to his father Tanin (Paramej Noiam) who's rarely at home. Tanin employs a male nurse Pun (Arkaney Cherkham) to take care of Ake. At first venting his anger at Pun, Ake soon develops a close bond with him.

Most of the action takes place in the mansion, and Anoncha adopts a non-linear structure (albeit decided during the editing process), preventing Mundane History from being another heart-warming inspirational film. We have a perfect sense of how 'soulless' the place is (to borrow Pun's words early in the film), with the hollow interior shots, gloomy faces, brooding backs, and the occasional cut to the exterior, perhaps suggesting some external threat, supernatural force or the 'bad karma' that afflicts the family. 

However, Mundane History isn't content with commenting on familial relations or the lack of communication between people. A supernova sequence intervenes in the second half of the film, and soon we hear Pun and Ake spouting philosophical musings on how 'our ideas do change' or 'is it possible to live without a past'. The film ends with a home video-like flaring montage of natural and human images with a voiceover on the inevitable but spectacular event of a supernova, and then proceeds to a live cesarean birth. 

Perhaps there's an indirect motivational message after all, on how Ake's suffering is one of the many trivial experiences in the wondrous journey of life. And if the film is an illustration on how small Pun and Ake are in the greater order of things, then the awesome astronomical explosion (scored with Malaysian band Furniture's 'Hush, the Dead Are Sleeping') certainly does its job.

But I felt rather underwhelmed by the film. Is it because I was sitting at the back of the cinema, far from my comfort zone at the front rows? Have I failed to immerse myself into the cinematic experience due to my obsessive note-taking? Or is it because the relatively staid treatment in the first half poses a serious mismatch with the big bang and grandiose scope in the second half? Does the narrative lack the dramatic and emotional heft necessary to sustain the familiar but fundamental themes of life, death and rebirth? (At least another HKIFF film Enter The Void 死心不息 attempted to do so with its indulgent assault of love and sex.) And is Robert Koehler's observation in Cinema Scope Issue 42 correct in saying that Mundane History 'feels like two different films vying for attention'?

While a metaphysical/spiritual/Buddhist reading of Mundane History remains the obvious choice, it's interesting that Anoncha intended to present a political and social commentary. In the post-screening Q and A, this YouTube monologue, and this interview, Anoncha emphasises the film as a reflection about the politics of Thai society, and the family being a microcosm of Thai society. Aside from a brief shot of a royalist ('yellow shirts') demonstration during the montage, I didn't spot any other overt political allusions. I can only guess there's something in the film about the patriarchal or closeted nature of Thai society and the desire for a breakthrough or rebirth in the current political stalemate. But that's a guess coming from someone who has never set foot in Thailand.

Winner of Rotterdam Film Festival 2010's Tiger Award* (along with To The Sea 男孩與海 and Agua Fria 赤道寒流, both shown in this year's HKIFF), Mundane History is a confident debut that ultimately doesn't measure up as a whole. This is not to say that the film is a poor, slapdash piece of work; but with such high ambitions, there's bound to be some disappointment in its execution.

*= Those with a cynical disposition may want to note that both Mundane History and Agua Fria were sponsored by Rotterdam's own Hubert Bals Fund. I have nothing to add.

Mundane History is showing in the HKIFF.

Reviews from the excellent Wise Kwai's Thai Film Journal here and here, Variety, and The Hollywood Reporter.