The Isthmus: Busan Review

A well-meaning but tepid debut feature that chronicles the lives of Burmese illegal immigrants living in southern Thailand.

With its story about a career-minded Thai woman trying to sever her daughter’s ties with her recently deceased Burmese maid, The Isthmus’s title could well be taken as a metaphor for this attempt by a mother to reconnect with her child. But the title for Sopawan Boonnimitra and Peerachai Kerdsint’s directorial debut turns out to be more literal, with the film offering merely a snapshot of Burmese illegal immigrants living on the Thai part of the land bridge shared by the two countries.

The Isthmus begins with the young girl (played by Marisa Kidd) being ferried by her mother Da (Sangthong Gate-U-Thong) to the region where their helper, Gee, used to live. The trip was born out of Da’s fears that the maid’s spirit has taken over her daughter, who has suddenly switched to speaking only Burmese.

As the film proceeds, however, the pair are relegated to the sidelines as the Burmese villagers take over the narrative. Amidst an abundance of furrowed brows, listless feet, vague hints of painful recent episodes in Burmese history (the deadly typhoon Nargis; the Buddhist-Muslim religious clashes) and seemingly meaningful chit-chat about living lives where one “prepares for everything and nothing.”

It’s a film which explores inexplicable presences and absences — it’s about identities in flux, as bodies are “invaded” (as in Hom’s case, or in the mention of Gee’s sister having contracted AIDS) or in the occupation of spaces (with the villagers, whose lives are about being aliens in their host country). But one cannot drive this theme along solely on melancholy. Ultimately, The Isthmus offers too much emotion and a wafer-thin a treatise that doesn’t support a very tangible socio-political issue.

New Currents

Cast: Sangthong Gate-U-Thong, Marisa Kidd

Directors: Sopawan Boonnimitra, Peerachai Kerdsint

90 minutes

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