Though Midi Z left Myanmar at the age of sixteen in the late 1990s to work and study in Taiwan, eventually obtaining citizenship, he has in a sense never left his home country. Return to Burma (2011) marked not only his feature-length debut but also his reencounter with his home country, ten years after he had left. Though not exactly autobiographical, the film’s story of a Myanmese construction worker based in Taiwan returning to Myanmar on the eve of the country’s first parliamentary elections cannot but reflect Midi Z’s own homecoming, tinged with hope, trepidation, and disenchantment all at once. By his own admission, Return to Burma actually began as a documentary and became a fiction film, with his production manager and former classmate Wang Shin-hong ultimately taking on the lead role. Such a physical and cinematic homecoming has since cemented the primary subject of his six films, be they fiction or documentary: the movement and experiences of Myanmese communities, within the country and across borders, in the name of survival, livelihood, and personal dreams and desires.
The Road to Mandalay takes on similar terrain, literally and figuratively. The film follows Lianqing (Wu Ke-Xi), a young woman attempting to eke out a living in Thailand, without proper work/residence papers, in order to wire money back home. Yet the more her desire to remain in Thailand and obtain a working permit – or even an official I.D. – strengthens, the more it seems out of reach. In the course of working, surviving, and even having ambitions of moving beyond Thailand, her increasingly close contact with a fellow Myanmese named Guo (Kai Ko) also illegally working in Thailand ultimately recalibrates her experiences and the film in general into nothing less than a searing portrait of social alienation in an already fractured, wounded migrant community. Such alienation finds its most unexpected and frightening manifestation at the film’s conclusion.
The film’s concluding frankness and intensity is belied by the film’s opening, idyllic shot of a river where, almost imperceptibly, amongst trees and brush, two people appear in the background center and throw a rubber tire on the water. They then proceed to paddle towards the camera as they emerge in the light, a young man and a woman. As they near the foreground, one of them grabs a rope attached to a riverbank and the camera tracks laterally from left to right to keep pace with them. As the camera continues tracking laterally, it reveals on the right side of the frame a man awaiting them. He pulls up the woman to land and immediately demands payment. From there, she travels by motorbike and then by truck with other fellow Myanmese. The woman is Lianqing, who has just clandestinely crossed the Myanmar-Thailand border. Upon arrival in Bangkok, she meets with a friend already established there and who takes her to an apartment shared with several other young Myanmese women working in the country but without legal papers.
Such community and friendship further inject even a hopeful tone to Lianqing’s prospects, outside the question of legality. And this community and friendship extend to Guo and his sister, the former having made the trek to Bangkok with Lianqing and other Myanmese earlier in the film and making evident his friendly-cum-romantic interest in her. Though unable to secure a white-collar job due to the lack of a work permit, Lianqing ends up getting work washing dishes at a restaurant where other Myanmese work, some with papers, others without. When the restaurant is raided, thus leading to being let go, Guo is there to help her get a position in the factory where he works. There, Lianqing makes the acquaintance of other Myanmese with whom she gets along, making the burden of survival at least a collective experience where people look out for each other.
But slowly and just as imperceptibly as he introduces Lianqing at the film’s beginning, Midi Z exposes the cracks within this community alongside the external legal and oppressive forces that heavily impact it and its social and emotional bonds. Even elliptically, for instance, when the film reveals only after the fact, at Guo’s sister’s place, that their mutual friend at the apartment had accused Lianqing of stealing money and therefore kicked her out – prompted, as some claim, by the friend’s own vulnerability and difficulties of trying to make a life in Bangkok. And also clinically, as in place of shot/reverse-shot, which would allow insight into a character’s emotional trajectory within a given scene or the film overall, Midi Z prefers one-shot scenes. Paired with mainly medium shots, and the style can perhaps be described as what Aaron Gerow has termed a ‘detached style,’ one that ‘tries to respect [the] characters’ right not to be known’ or fully/easily decoded. This choice serves several functions: to provide a perspective of not only the individual but also the individual-in-the-world and to avoid passing pat judgment or condescending pity on these characters. And with startling imagery, specifically when Lianqing takes on (or just contemplates?) sex work as a last resort in order to get the most money within a short amount of time; here, Midi Z presents a sequence of utter simplicity but also of unforgettable, disconcerting quality that is only rivaled by the film’s ending.
When an accident at the factory with one of Lianqing’s fellow workers proves how precarious their lives are without legal papers/identities, alienation even between Guo and her materialises in spite of their friendship-turned-romantic relationship. Concurrently, any semblance of a community further fades into thin air in the name of self-preservation and perhaps other desires. She steadfastly continues her quest for an I.D. – with Wu playing the role with absolute steeliness – while, increasingly, Guo prompts her (not) to do various things, for her ‘own good’ and also to be near her. He looks inward, not interested in obtaining a work permit or remaining in Thailand but instead earning just enough money to return to Myanmar; at one point, he shares with her that he is even ready for marriage. In contrast, she looks outward, seeing herself in the future as legally working in Thailand, working up to a white-collar job, and even traveling elsewhere, with marriage not (yet) in the picture. She therefore has a very specific vision for herself and the way in which she wants to realise that vision, much to Guo’s dismay. While she is earnest with her vision for herself, he is practical, but arrogant, even righteous. Lianqing and Guo’s subsequent individual and shared trajectories ultimately lay bare the dearth of options and assistance available to them and other Myanmese, within and without their country, thus pushing them to extremes.
The Road to Mandalay is showing on May 11 at the Chinese Visual Festival.