Saturday, September 17, 2016

TIFF ’16: Ta’ang

They are the migrants the global hand-wringers prefer to ignore. They are peaceful, family-oriented, and have no desire to impose their faith on others. Their religion? Theravada Buddhism, why do you ask? Caught in the crossfire of civil unrest approaching full-scale civil war, at least ten thousand ethnic Ta’ang Burmese have fled into southwest China, but the UN has yet to scold the People’s Republic for not offering them a proper welcome. Instead, it falls once again on auteurist documentarian Wang Bing to prick the world’s conscience as best he can with Ta’ang (clip here), which screened during this year’s Toronto International Film Festival.

At a mere two hours and twenty-eight minutes, Ta’ang is downright svelte by Wang’s standards. Although he maintains his characteristically severe observational aesthetic, Ta’ang is also one of his most accessible films. At its core, it is about families struggling to stay together—something most everyone should be able to identify with on some level. Wang shot extensively at the Maidihe and Chachang refugee camps, but he spends even more time literally on the road with the displaced Ta’ang Burmese (they don’t call it Myanmar). Aside from one nasty busybody bullying an old woman in the opening scene, there are no officials of any kind to be found in the film. Nor are any soldiers seen, but the sounds of war are often audible in the background.

At least from what we gather through Wang’s lens, the Ta’ang are not waiting around for handouts from anyone. They really just want to get on with their lives and seem inclined to try anywhere. With their western t-shirts, they are clearly functionally assimilated with the modern, globalized world. Indeed, it is the cell phone, an obvious product of the modern age that keeps them connected with far-flung family members.

It is heart-breaking to see the Ta’ang children forced to grow up and accept adult responsibilities as their families head higher into the mountains or deeper into China in search of a more stable existence. Some refugees get all the breaks. It is no secret why. Buddhism just doesn’t have the same politically correct protections as faiths more inclined towards umbrage-taking.

Regardless, Ta’ang has Wang’s stamp all over it. There is the same patient pacing that allows moments to unfold in their own uncompressed time. Arguably, his sense of visual composition is even keener and sharper than ever, judging from his arresting fireside sequences that have the chiaroscuro glow of old masters. Two and half hours still represents a very real time commitment, but Ta’ang directly engages viewers on an emotional level, much like Three Sisters (as opposed to the ambitious but punishing ‘Til Madness Do Us Part). Highly recommended for anyone who really cares about refugee issues, Ta’ang is sure to have a long festival life following its screenings at this year’s TIFF.