The Road To Mandalay (2016) by Midi Z

A heartbreaking story of two Burmese illegal immigrants trying to find a better life.

Immigrant, a word which is sure to draw an opinion, especially during these turbulent times. Some fetishise them, some deride them, it is hard to remain indifferent; especially if they are illegal. In this process of attributing certain characteristics, somehow, they cease to be normal people. Like a Schrodinger’s cat, they either steal jobs or game the benefits system. Released in 2016 and directed by Midi Z, “The Road to Mandalay” is a film which attempts to humanise them.

"The Road To Mandalay" will screen at the New York Asian Film Festival, that will be on June 30 to July 16

The plot opens with a young Burmese girl, Wang Lianqing, (played by Ke-Xi Wu) crossing a river and then going to a van which will take her to Bangkok. During her travel, she meets a young Burmese man, Guo (played by Ko Chen-tung). After they reach Bangkok, Guo gives Lianqing his cousin’s number and she gives him a bottle of shrimp paste. Lianqing arrives at a friend’s place and her friend assures her that she will help her get a job. Unfortunately for Lianqing, the company they go to has made their hiring policy stringent and cannot hire her without a work permit. She eventually ends up working as a dishwasher in a small restaurant. There, she learns of a way to get an ID card which she hopes will help her get a good job. Unfortunately, they are discovered by the police and owner must fire his workers. Lainqing’s bail though is paid by Guo and it becomes apparent at this point that he is in love with her. He gets her a job in the factory and soon, they both travel to a village to get their ID cards made. Her hopes are dashed again when she goes back to the same company only to find that her ID card is useless since it does not contain a proper ID number and cannot be used as a work permit. In desperation, she turns to prostitution to earn enough to get a fake Thai ID card.

There are several points of interest in this film. The first point is the highlighting of the Burmese immigrants who travel to other Southeast Asian countries, (primarily Thailand) for work. They must pay a lot to the smugglers and then forced to work low paying jobs. Some must resort to prostitution to earn good money. Their lives are plagued by the fear of being discovered by the police. This has been represented well when right in the beginning of the movie, Lianqing’s acquaintance, Hua, loses the house key in the bus but cannot go back and search for it since she might be caught. When she knocks at the door, her roommates do not open until Hua confirms that it is her. This coupled with the scene of Lianqing’s arrest from the restaurant drives home their desperate conditions. Despite all the setbacks, Lianqing never gives up and keeps looking for better opportunities.

Yet, “The Road to Mandalay” is not just a movie about immigrants. It is also a love story, albeit an unreciprocated one. Guo from the start tries to help Lianqing. When he sees the conditions she must work in the restaurant, he grabs her bags and tells her to come with him. She refuses and wants to do things her own way. The love is unreciprocated since the two rarely have any romantic moments. They both have different goals. While Guo wants to earn enough to open a cloth store in Burma, she wants to get a Thai citizenship and then one day go to Taiwan. Guo does not even want to get ID cards since he finds it useless. With such conflicting interests, their relationship does not last. In fact, it ends on a tragic note.

There are several other characters who provide interesting side stories. First are Lianqing’s roommates when she first comes to Bangkok. It is implied that two of them are working as prostitutes. Then there are the Burmese working in a clothing factory. Many of them must work long hours, taking amphetamine to sustain their work rates. When one of them suffers an accident, they are quickly removed from the company and paid some cash to keep them quiet. They have no option but to go back to Burma, their future uncertain. The film also offers a good insight into the rampant corruption in Thailand. Police officers actively seek bribes to look the other way.

Interestingly like the director, Midi Z, most of the Burmese characters, are originally from Lashio state in Burma. He goes on to settle in Taiwan. The name of the movie may come from the poem of the same name by the writer, Rudyard Kipling. The poem is a tribute to the beauty of Burma and Burmese women.    

From a technical point of view, the movie is well done given its limited budget. The scenes are well thought out and the camera work is decent. One scene which I found strange is where Lainqing becomes a prostitute and goes to meet a client in a hotel room. Instead of showing a man, there is a large monitor lizard on the bed. It proceeds to climb up her body and starts licking her face, growling while doing it. This scene could have been done with a man. Maybe the director wanted to show the predatory side of men. The scene is left open to interpretation. The acting is decent as well, although I felt that Ke-Xi Wu as Lianqing could have been more expressive.

“The Road to Mandalay” is a tribute to Burmese immigrants. Not only does it highlight the issues they face but also humanises them and provides a dignified perspective into their lives. Maybe if Guo and Lianqing had been Thai with no major financial obligations, they may have ended up married. The sad part is, we will never know. 



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Asian Film Vault: The Road To Mandalay (2016) by Midi Z
The Road To Mandalay (2016) by Midi Z
A heartbreaking story of two Burmese illegal immigrants trying to find a better life.
Asian Film Vault
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