Thursday, June 29, 2017

NYAFF ’17: The Road to Mandalay

It sounds exotic, but Hope & Crosby never traveled like Lianqing and Guo. The Burmese migrants will pay stiff fees and endure rough conditions, just so they can work like dogs in Bangkok. Things ought to be easier if they stick together, but it might not necessarily work out that way in Midi Z’s The Road to Mandalay (trailer here), which screens during this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

Upon arriving in Bangkok, Lianqing gets a surprisingly frosty reception from her cousin. It seems the embittered Hua has recently lost her job due to lack of proper documentation and expects Lianqing will fare even worse. The only people to show her any kindness are their other roommate Cai and Guo, who took her place in the trunk during the arduous trek over the border. Although awkward, he is clearly determined to romantically pursue her—and she cannot deny his work ethic.

Unfortunately, they have different medium-term goals. She wants to attain Thai citizenship (or at least a passable facsimile) so she can ultimately work in Taiwan, whereas he would like to open a clothes-hawking stall in Bangkok. The more circumstance force them together, the more their conflicting goals cause tension in their relationship.

Probably no filmmaker has been more proactive documenting the experiences of refugees, migrant workers, and the generally dispossessed than Z has, in both his documentaries and narrative films. His star ought to be sky-rocketing right now, but the Taiwan-based Burmese expat has focused on his countrymen and other ethnic minorities in China. The sad truth is the world does not care about Buddhist immigrants from Burma. The professionally compassionate can only be bothered with Muslim immigrants, preferably from Syria. The Burmese need not apply.

Indeed, that is the reception that waits for Lianqing in Thailand. Of course, Bangkok being Bangkok, the threat of sexual exploitation always lurks in the background. Perhaps it is intended as a symbolic interlude, but when the film finally descends into the world of prostitution, it becomes bizarrely disturbing, in a way viewers will never expect.

Without question, Road is the most muscular and focused narrative of Z’s career. As usual, his regular muse Wu Ke-xi is absolutely arresting as the innocent-but-tougher-than-she-looks Lianqing. In a drastic change of pace, Tiny Times co-star Kai Ko plays the confused and brooding Guo, wearing his heart and his resentments on his sleeve. He and Wu convincingly show us the couple’s good days and bad.

Road will leave viewers angry but unsure at whom or what—possibly Z.  He certainly isn’t afraid of strong reactions, that’s for sure. He also shows an acute sensitivity towards the poor and marginalized, while Wu once again delivers a mature, eerily expressive performance. Recommended for patrons of topical art cinema and fans of Z or Wu, The Road to Mandalay screens this Monday (7/3) at the Walter Reade, as part of the 2017 NYAFF.