Road to Mandalay, The (2016)

Review #1,377






THE SCOOP
Director:  Midi Z
Cast:  Kai Ko, Wu Ke-Xi
Plot:  Two Burmese immigrants flee their country's civil war in search of a new life in Thailand.

Genre:  Drama
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.  
Runtime:  108min
Rating:  NC16 for some violence and drug use
Internatonal Sales:  Urban Distribution International
Singapore Distributor:  The Filmic Eye

IN RETROSPECT (Spoilers: NO)
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. 

Verdict:  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.

GRADE: A-






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Singapore International Film Festival 2016 Premiere -- Photo Credit: David Lee


Singapore International Film Festival 2016 In Conversation Series

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