The Road to Mandalay

A winding little river somewhere in the forest near Tachileik, in the Golden Triangle, along the border between Myanmar and Thailand. A young woman, Lianqing (Wu Ke-Xi), is being smuggled across. She is on her way to Bangkok, to earn a better living and send money back home. She regularly has to pay bribes, as she progresses on her journey.

Along the way, Lianqing meets Guo (Kai Ko), a fellow illegal migrant. He is young like her, tall, handsome. Like her, he is a member of Myanmar’s minority Chinese population. He immediately takes on the role of protector. Whether she likes this or not is not clear, but what is clear is that from the outset she shows herself to be self-determining, and wishing to chart her own course. She never asks him for help, and as they reach Bangkok, she expresses no wish to see him again.

Lianqing is headed for a flat share, where a cousin and friends live. She hopes to find work quickly but soon learns that without a permit, it will be very difficult to find a decent job, and to start making her way in life. Lianqing is a resolute young woman; she simply gets on with a low-paid, menial job, and labours her way towards obtaining new identity papers and with that, a work permit.

Her focus is impressive; nothing distracts her from that goal, despite a succession of setbacks, and despite Guo’s interference. He keeps on appearing in her life. He seems helpful, but it is in the main somewhat unwanted help – rather, repeated low-key attempts at control. Lianqing has her own goals in life, to be autonomous, to earn her own money; what Guo wants, as becomes increasingly clear, is Lianqing. More precisely, Lianqing, as his wife, and back home.

Lianqing both tolerates and ignores him. Other people assume they are a couple, even though they are not in a relationship; no love is expressed. It is simply that he is almost always around her, and even she comes to accept him as a sort of boyfriend.

The film maintains a certain ambiguity about Guo, until the last two minutes of the film. Lianqing’s story – and The Road to Mandalay is her story – ends suddenly, in a disconcerting, graphically violent way. Some of the more dramatic elements of the film are based on a true story; meanwhile, the day to day details are based on careful research.

It’s a beautiful and precise documentary account of living and working conditions of Burmese people in Thailand, told engagingly and with great sensitivity. However, the storytelling feels as if the film were trying to accommodate two quite different tales. Though based on fact, the last scenes feel like a confusing narrative jolt.

Director Midi Z was born in Myanmar, moving to Taiwan in his teens. His film documents beautifully a subject he is close to. It is an accomplished film, visually intelligent and tightly edited. For the most part it is a great pleasure to watch; the message it sends, perhaps inadvertently, is more troubling.

Director: Midi Z
Producers: Patrick Mao Huang, Midi Z
Director of photography: Tom Fan
Production designer: Akekarat Homlaor
Costume designers: Rujirumpai Mongkol, Phim Umari
Editor: Matthieu Laclau
Music: Lim Giong
Cast: Kai Ko, Wu Ke-xi, Wang Shin-Hong, Zhao De-Fu, Zheng Meng-Lan

Originally published on Screenwords in September 2017