14 Apples (Taiwan/Myanmar, 2018) [VIFF 2018]

For his latest work, Taiwan-based Myanmar filmmaker Midi Z closely shadows one of his frequent collaborators, actor Wang Shin-hong. Wang has appeared in Midi Z’s short and feature films since the latter’s 2011 directorial debut Return From Burma. But 14 Apples marks their first collaboration for a documentary and maybe Midi Z’s most lighthearted film. Following the title shot, a text explains the film’s context: in search of a cure for his insomnia, Wang’s mother sought advice from a fortune teller, whose guidance consisted of buying fourteen apples, taking them to a temple in the countryside, and living as a monk while eating an apple a day for two weeks. Like a folk tale, the text presents a mixture of the mundane, whimsical, and insightful. Presumably, the film would be of a similar tonal mixture as it follows Wang on the prescribed journey for his cure.

The film fulfills such anticipation based on the prologue–if one is patient enough to traipse through the mundane. Given that Midi Z did not conduct any pre-planning and simply accompanied Wang on his journey with his camera, the film has a tough shell of the mundane that makes the whimsical and insightful seem far removed, if not absent. But as the film gradually deviates from Wang and turns its attention to those around him in the village where he settles to spend his apple-eating fortnight as a monk, it also surprisingly acquires a revelatory, even biting, quality about the (conditions of) livelihood for present-day monks.

Fundamental to the film’s negotiation of the mundane, whimsical, and insightful are its tenaciously long takes. If the long take was a necessity during shooting, that necessity becomes tempered with intentionality since Midi Z also co-edited the film. From the opening scene, the long take prevails, ponderously so in cases when the camera’s gaze hardly deviates from Wang and therefore does not provide a differing or comparative horizon of space/focus. The film’s first set of long takes present very literally the fortune teller’s prescription for Wang with indeed a certain cumbersomeness: buy fourteen apples, with Wang parking his car in front of a fruit stand in the middle of a bustling outdoor market and haggling with the vendor; go to the countryside, though on his way his car gets bogged in sand and a group of spirited boys helps him to free it; and become ordained as a monk, from having his head shaved to accepting donations.

In other cases, the long take constitutes a hypnotic visual embrace of reality unfolding because the focus no longer becomes just Wang but also the local villagers, including the dynamic between monks and lay followers. Consequently, the world of the film expands and so does its interest. One such long take is the ritual of donations after Wang is ordained as a monk. Emerging from a temple with his head shaved and now wearing the traditional monk robe while holding an earthen jar, Wang then walks on a snake-like path marked by cloths placed by locals as they offer their donations and kneel before him. After an initial reframing, Midi Z captures the ritual with Wang occupying the center of the frame and moving forward/towards the camera with lay followers on the left side of the frame and several men stuffing the larger donations in bags so as to make room for other donations in the jar on the right side of the frame. Both the ritual and long take last more than five minutes, allowing the power of duration to emerge in full force and transform an otherwise common ritual into a vague, strange socio-economic transaction severed from its religious context. This detached, even wry, observation is reinforced in the next scene when the camera first gazes at Wang sitting cross-legged with his eyes closed–the very picture of Buddhist meditation–and then slowly pans left to reveal the same men organising the substantial donations of worldly goods.

The actually porous line between monastic and worldly, as ‘monks are just like ordinary people,’ ultimately becomes the film’s subject, with Wang as its entry point. Another shot of Wang engaging in meditation as before directly gives way, this time through a plain cut instead of a pan, to frank conversations (and mild argument) by several monks of comparative earnings/donations in different locations and spending habits, with Wang more of a listener than participant.

Scenes of donations, money, and spending among the monks contrast heavily with those of the locals’ hardships/struggles, though at no point in the film does it pass judgment on anyone. A scene lasting a dozen minutes presents a low-level shot of two young women speaking of the experiences/hazards of going abroad for work, in response to Wang’s off-screen queries. Another scene (of nearly ten minutes) is the film’s most extraordinary moment, as the camera faithfully follows five women from fetching water to walking back to the village of interminable distance, in single file and without conversation, while carrying the pails on their heads. The next shot reveals that the water is in fact for Wang’s use.

14 Apples is showing on October 1 and 10 at the Vancouver International Film Festival.