Director: Midi Z
Cast: Kai Ko, Wu Ke-Xi
Runtime: 1 hr 48 mins
Rating: NC16 (Some Violence and Drug Use)
Official Website: http://sgiff.com/browse-all-films/road-to-mandalay/
Opening Day: 1 December 2016 (Singapore International Film Festival 2016)
Synopsis: Beginning with the procedural of illegal border crossing into Thailand and jumping straight into the precarious living conditions of a garment factory, director Midi Z’s new feature film takes on a frantic tone of constant anxiety that plagues the working community of illegal Burmese migrants striving to carve a space for themselves in a foreign land. Headstrong and hardworking Lianqing (played by Wu Ke-Xi, a regular in Midi Z’s films) strongly believes that life abroad promises a bright future. She relentlessly works to save up her earnings for a working permit, a process that takes her and others through a Kafkaesque labyrinth of provincial bureaucracy existing within the shadows. Guo (in a breakthrough role by Kai Ko, known for his roles in You Are the Apple of My Eye and Tiny Times) on the other hand plans to work in Thailand temporarily to bring his earnings back for a better life back in Myanmar. An unrequited love blossoms between Lianqing and Guo when they meet sharing the same transport into Thailand. While both share similar circumstances abroad, the difference between their aspirations thwarts the development of their relationship. Guo’s attempts to get closer to Liangqing is met with her total conviction to channel all her energy and entire being to get the papers she needs so desperately. In a world where there is no time for love, repressed desires find its monstrous outlet.
Who better to tell a story of Burmese citizens seeking to escape the poverty and conflict in their home country than Myanmar-born Taiwanese film director Midi Z? Born in Lashio, Shan State, Myanmar, the 33-year-old filmmaker received a scholarship and moved to Taiwanwhen he was 16. He went on to receive bachelor's master's degrees, and became a naturalised citizen of Taiwanafter renoucning his Burmese citizenship, in 2011.
At the 53rd Golden Horse Awards, he was recognised with the Outstanding Taiwanese Filmmaker of the Year, where his latest work is receiving buzz for being a realistic and affecting drama about illegal immigrants staying in Thailand’s Bangkok.
The film starts of with a simple Burmese girl Lianqing (Wu Ke-Xi) who decides to leave poverty behind and cross illegally into Thailand. She meets a kind fellow migrant Guo (Kai Ko) who wants nothing more than work and bring money back to Myanmar. While in Thailand, their two fates intertwine and both discover the journey to obtain legal identity papers and work permits is an immense challenge.
The 108 minute film starts off as a tale of the hardships of immigrants living in a foreign land, but turns into a story of obsession, control and jealousy. Viewers see how Lianqing moves from the central area of Bangkokinto the suburbs – from working as a dish cleaner (she was initially hoping to get an sales job) to working in a factory with Guo. The relationship between the two protagonists is, unfortunately, bound to end in tragedy.
Regrettably, life ain’t no fairytale for most people.
After Return to Burma(2011), Poor Folk (2012) and Ice Poison (2014), Midi Z makes a successful transition to mainstream cinema while retaining his talent of expressing the raw, gritty and often heartbreaking sides of human emotions. Here, he works with Wu (who appeared in his previous works) and draws an empathetic performance from the actress. Ko, who sheds his idol persona from 2011’s You Are the Apple of My Eye and the Tiny Times franchise to play a somewhat dislikeable character.
The film is especially notable as it was screened in Midi Z’s home country for the first time in November 2016. Audiences can expect a human drama that isn’t as conventionally paced as commercial movies (there are long takes and minimal dialogues), but your efforts will pay off by observing the intimate portrayals of two very real characters.
Reviewed by John Li at the 27th Singapore International Film Festival