By Jim Mackney
The Road to Mandalay is a bewitching, social-realist drama from Taiwanese film director, Midi Z.
The drama focuses on Lianqing (Wu Ke-xi) and her pursuit of a better life in Bangkok. The film’s opening ten minutes portrays the first steps on her journey, including her being smuggled over the Burma/Thailand border. Initially she has only paid enough to gain a place in the boot of the truck but Guo (Kai Ko), a boy from the same Burmese district of Lashio, offers to take her place. She gratefully accepts and this small act of kindness kick-starts the films love story.
Remaining faithful to his documentary roots, Midi Z directs the drama with a stillness and quiet camera that is not often seen in modern romantic dramas. Shots are held for a long time, allowing the audience to take in the full picture and focus on the performances of the characters. The editing is uncomplicated and each scene is allowed to unfold at its natural pace. This ensures that the film’s more devastating moments are given room to breathe, and they are all the more powerful for it.
Upon arriving in the outskirts of Bangkok, Lianqing is met by a friend who previously made the potentially perilous journey from Burma. The apartment Lianqing is taken to is nothing more than two medium sized rooms but now four girls must make a home there. The portrayal of friendship in this scene is interesting because despite the sense of community and refuge it is clear that there is a hierarchy amongst the group. Lianqing’s friend works at a shoe boutique, having obtained proper identification papers, another of the girls has a job but not the correct papers so lives her life in fear of being caught and the other is a sex worker in the city. The idea is floated over dinner that Lianqing could become a sex worker but her friend steps in and say it’s too dangerous, besides she can work with her.
As the film develops, the central idea of what Lianqing can and can’t do is revisited many times. Without proper papers the shoe boutique will not accept her, this being the film’s first devastating moment. Wu Ke-xi’s performance is exemplary throughout but it is in these moments of rejection that she shines. Her face is the picture perfect response to yet another obstacle obstructing her way to a free life and her trust in that she’ll be okay, ebbing away. Another scene later in the film, depicting similar rejection, shows her crying on the back of Guo’s moped in the pouring rain, and it created an image that I have subsequently found hard to shake.
Lianqing eventually finds a job as pot washer for very little money and for someone that doesn’t ask questions. Guo, known by Lianqing’s fellow workers as the simple boy, tries to take her away to the factory where he works, where the work is harder but the pay is a lot better but Lianqing refuses; her independent streak and desire and pride to achieve more than factory work overruling what the audience are lead to believe is the safer option.
Over the course of the film, the love story between Guo and Lianqing takes a back seat and the film develops into much more of an allegorical tale around the plight facing Thailand’s transient and exploited immigrant workforce. The couple and their co-workers are exploited by ‘state officials’ offering fake identification documents with the ‘real’ documents costing vast sums of money that they have no hope of affording.
Events set in motion in the middle of the film allow the narrative to gather momentum and the film develops a more desperate and sad demeanour. One constant throughout the film is that for Lianqing and Guo, whatever they need, however simple and basic, comes at a price.
As the film’s final, shocking images flash up on screen you’re left sad and angry. Sad that the film’s narrative has concluded with such a barbaric act of violence and anger at the system that has forced the narrative down this path. “The Road to Mandalay” is a quietly devastating film, and one I would urge you to experience.
Released in cinemas on 29/09