Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Midi Z at Asia Society: Poor Folk

As any Russian novel will tell you, poverty sure make life complicated, in a bad way. Burmese migrant worker A-hong understand the truth of that better than anyone. He has slipped into Thailand on some risky undocumented business, necessitated by his parents’ unthinkable decision. Despite the references to Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, it is a predatory world out there on the streets of Bangkok and in the backrooms of border towns like Dagudi, as we see up-close in Midi Z’s sophomore film, Poor Folk (trailer here), which concludes Homecoming Myanmar: A Midi Z Retrospective, the first American survey of Z’s work.

A-hong and A-fu are sort of the Laurel and Hardy of dodgy border crossing crime. The younger A-hong is small and nervous, while the older A-fu is a paunchy big talker. The latter has been in Bangkok much longer, but he still does not have a lot to show for his scheming. They have both gotten themselves involved in a drug trafficking operation. In Thailand that is a really bad idea, but A-hong needs money fast to buy back the little sister his family reluctantly sold to human traffickers.

This trafficking often flows through Dagudi, where Sun-mei (as usual, played by Z’s muse Wu Ke-xi) is marking time. She is waiting for a forged Taiwanese identity card from her shadowy employer, but he has been in no hurry to deliver. These two stories will intersect at a bitterly sorrowful nexus, but first we witness the ultimate tragedy produced by such circumstances.

Despite a bit of narrative doubling-back, Poor Folk is a far cry from Pulp Fiction. Stylistically, it is consistent with Z’s prior and subsequent films, Return to Burma and Ice Poison, examining the lives of the marginalized and dispossessed with an unvarnished naturalistic focus. These are street films, about street people, filmed at street-level.

Through Asia Society’s retrospective, one can get a sense of Wu Ke-xi’s range playing very different Sun-meis. Here she is both victim and victimizer, embodying the kick-down nature of this sort of nakedly exploitative enterprise. Essentially, Wang Shin-hong’s A-hong is a precursor to the unstable drug-dealing naïf he subsequently played in Ice Poison, but it is still painful to watch him making terrible decisions. However, Zhao De-fu’s A-fu stands out as the sort of John Goodmanesque character unseen in Z’s other films. He has a big, energetic presence that often offers something close to comedic relief.

Throughout Poor Folk, Z depicts some terribly inhumane acts, but it is a deeply humanistic film. Just about everyone is simply stuck playing the crummy hand life dealt them. Nonetheless, the rather matter-of-fact look at human trafficking is quite disturbing, precisely because of Z opts for a fly-on-the-wall presentation rather than ginning up cheap outrage. Gritty and grim, Poor Folk is recommended for those with a taste for austere socially conscious drama when it screens this Friday (3/13), the final night of Homecoming Myanmar, at Asia Society.