An excellent low-key drama about the perils of working in a foreign country as an illegal immigrant, directed with assurance and confident pacing by rising filmmaker Midi Z.
Dir. Midi Z
2016 | Myanmar/Taiwan | Drama | 108 mins | 1.85:1 | Burmese
NC16 (passed clean) for some violence and drug use
Cast: Kai Ko, Wu Ke-Xi
Plot: Two Burmese immigrants flee their country’s civil war in search of a new life in Thailand.
Awards: Won Fedeora Award for Best Film – International Film Critics Week (Venice). Won 1 Golden Horse – Outstanding Taiwanese Filmmaker of the Year. Nom. for 6 Golden Horses – Best Film, Best Director, Best Leading Actor, Best Leading Actress, Best Original Screenplay, Best Art Direction.
International Sales: Urban Distribution International
Subject Matter: Moderate
Narrative Style: Slightly Complex
Pace: Slightly Slow
Audience Type: Slightly Arthouse
(Reviewed at Singapore International Film Festival – first published 4 Dec 2016)
From its title, one would have expected a kind of road movie, but while The Road to Mandalay features some truly breathtaking shots of commute across tarmac and dirt tracks in a natural landscape of beautiful and bountiful greenery, the film is largely static as it paints bleakly the life of a Burmese-Chinese who crosses the border illegally to Thailand to find a job to support herself and her family.
The person in question is Lianqing (Wu Ke-Xi), and she represents anyone and everyone in the world struggling as an illegal immigrant toiling for meagre pay in a foreign country.
The film opens with a long take with her on a short sampan ride across a river. In the distance above the trees, we see the Myanmar national flag waving, oblivious to the clandestine activities below. It is a quiet, suspenseful scene that sets up the slow-building pace, which escalates into an inevitable intensity by the end of the film.
Kai Ko stars opposite Wu in a role that is sure to revive his once promising career (remember You Are the Apple of My Eye?) that was set back by a major drug scandal. He plays Guo, a Burmese-Chinese also working illegally in Thailand. He has a chance meeting with Lianqing as they cross the border. Smitten by her, but professes a differing perspective on life and work, his hints of courtship are unrequited.
Director Midi Z treads his narrative carefully, without sentiment in his depiction of romance, and with utter detachment in his portrayal of corruption by low-ranking Thai immigration officers. Here’s a film that hides its characters’ inner intentions and vulnerabilities well, only to be expressed, cathartically or otherwise, in a bout of uncontrollable rage.
One scene that sees a despairing Guo hurtling wood into a huge fire cauldron releases—through its imagery and haunting sound design—the external manifestation of his troubled psyche. Here’s a character who cannot deal with a life without reciprocal affection, without a meaningful future.
Midi Z, who is trained in Taiwan as a filmmaker despite his Burmese roots, has made a confident fourth feature, an assured follow-up to his breakthrough, Ice Poison (2014), which won Best Director at the Taipei Film Festival. He is certainly a rising talent, whose works continue to shine a light on the voiceless and faceless as they struggle for survival in a world that has cruelly left them behind.