Midi Z’s The Road to Mandalay lacks any of the exotic longing or Orientalism implied by the Kipling poem it derives its name from. Instead, the Myanmar-born director has created a Shakespearean tragedy charting the dehumanising process of two migrants.
The films of Midi Z have always been torn between an urgent desire to escape and a spiritual longing to return, and few contemporary directors have returned so compulsively to the same themes and imagery. His two most recent films, the quasi-documentary City of Jade and the unsettling drama Ice Poison, proved him to be, all at once, a documentarian and master storyteller, as adept at depicting wretched conditions as he is elevating the humble and every day to symbolic dimensions. This same conflict burns brightly The Road to Mandalay, an unconventional love story between Lianqing and Guo, two illegal immigrants from Myanmar’s ethnic Chinese minority.
The pair are travelling from Lashio to Thailand, thrust together by human traffickers but eventually torn apart by a cruel, uncaring society. Guo is besotted with Lianqing from the moment he lays eyes on her, but she’s far more interested in getting an official work permit. Once safely in Thailand they go their separate ways, with Lianqing finding a job as a dishwasher in Bangkok and Guo leaving to work in a rural cellophane factory. Midi Z stays with Lianqing, and his documentary impulses allow his camera to quietly observe her, creating a portrait of a woman trapped between a violent past and an impossible dream of escape.
It’s not long before Lianqing is arrested for working illegally and, once released, she decides to join Guo at the factory; partly because he paid her bail, but mainly out of sheer desperation. Once she arrives at the factory she silently demurs to entering into relationship with Guo, although you’d hardly guess it from the lack of affection she affords him. Placed into a production line of workers, toiling until their bodies become indistinguishable from the machines they operate, Lianqing and Guo quickly acclimatises to life in the factory, even making some friends who they travel to the border with to obtain some fake IDs.
Midi Z commendably resists the temptation to wallow in the misery of life in the factory, instead depicting it as perhaps one of the more favourable places to work in Thailand without a permit. However, it doesn’t take long until the monotony of the work speaks to the worker’s absence of autonomy and after a shocking, yet inevitable accident, Lianqing resorts to selling the one commodity she has left in order to escape. It’s here that Midi Z substitutes his dedication to social realism, and adds one of his trademark dramatic flourishes. Stood alone and afraid in a dimly-lit hotel room, there’s an ominous knock at the door and Lianqing is confronted with a giant iguana.
Instead of distracting from the harsh reality of the situation, the scene has a disquieting power, a strange, arresting image that evokes a myriad of questions regarding politics, religion and sex, with this touch of magical surrealism giving the brutal clarity of the film’s social commentary a bitter aftertaste. Combining a realist setting with a dreamlike style, The Road to Mandalay could easily have become a well-intentioned polemic, yet thanks to Midi Z’s brilliant command of visual metaphors and compassion for his subjects it’s elevated into a an unnervingly immediate portrait of the human cost of displacement.
Patrick Gamble | @PatrickJGamble