Friday, March 06, 2015

Midi Z at Asia Society: The Palace on the Sea (short)

Homecomings are important to Taiwan-based Burmese filmmaker Midi Z. For the Burmese diaspora, coming home is a rare luxury. Within the Evangelical and Holiness traditions, the term “coming home” has multiple meanings. Such also seems to be the case for an exhausted Burmese migrant worker, even though she adheres to Buddhist teachings. Time and destiny blur together for her in Midi Z’s short film, The Palace on the Sea (trailer here), which screens with his debut feature, Return to Burma, as part of the Asia Society’s new film series, Homecoming Myanmar: A Midi Z Retrospective.

It was once a grand floating luxury restaurant, but now it is a floating ghost ship. Sanmei has come there, acting on an uncanny desire for a homecoming. Inside, past and present will intersect when she dances with her former husband, who has since become a Buddhist monk. Frankly, Palace is not exactly a plotty film, but it is rich with symbolism and meaning.

In just about every way, Palace represents a pronounced departure from Midi Z’s feature films. Unlike the rigorous naturalism of Return to Burma and Ice Poison, Palace is experimental and expressionistic. In his features, Midi Z’s aesthetic sensibilities are closely akin to the work of the independent Chinese filmmakers loosely affiliated with the Digital Generation (dGenerate) movement. Midi Z largely forgoes stylistic flourish, for the sake of his features’ intimacy and immediacy.

In general, that is probably a wise strategy, but Palace is a different sort of project. Here Midi Z wows the audience with a number of stunning tracking shots that fully exploit the cinematic nature of the ghost ship. It is a great looking film that proves he has the chops for showier work as well as his socially conscious films.

Yet, just like his features, Palace stars his muse, Wu Ke-xi. Arguably, the role of Sanmei is more about serving the needs of the film than an acting showcase, per se. Nonetheless, the film certainly proves she can dance. In fact, she brings a sensitive, nuanced presence that helps viewers engage on an emotional level rather than just taking in the spectacle of it all.

Palace is a perfect example of how heavily symbolic filmmaking often works better in short forms. During its fifteen minute running time, receptive viewers are likely to think: “okay, I get it and it looks very really cool” whereas in a feature that same initial response can deteriorate into: “okay, I get it already.” Those who have previously seen Midi Z’s feature length work really should check out Palace on the Sea, because it shows a whole different skillset they wouldn’t know he had. It screens tomorrow (3/7) with the more-or-less clandestinely shot, already historically significant Return to Burma at the Asia Society, as part of their Midi Z retro.