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With hardly a pagoda, a palm tree or a pealing temple bell in sight, The Road to Mandalay has nearly nothing to do with Rudyard Kipling’s orientalist ode to lands east of Suez. Set nearly entirely in nondescript working-class haunts in and around Bangkok — the titular city doesn’t feature at all in the film — Burmese-born Taiwanese director Midi Z’s fourth feature offers a slow-moving migrants’ tale tagged with a short, sudden and surprisingly violent finale.
Having veered off on a tangent for the past two years with a pair of largely observational documentaries (Jade Miners, City of Jade) and a video installation (My Folks in Jade City), Z has returned to where he left off with his last fictional feature, Ice Poison. Revolving around a doomed romance, and boasting stunningly pristine camerawork and a bona fide film star in the shape of Kai Ko (of rom-coms You Are the Apple of My Eye and Tiny Times), The Road to Mandalay continues Z’s march toward mainstream accessibility he began with Ice Poison.
Z has managed to retain and refine much of his trademark aesthetic mix of static and long shots, elliptical conversations and a melancholic sonic ambience, despite (or because of) more resources available this time round — possibly thanks to the presence of Taiwanese showbiz svengali (and Ko’s agent) Angie Chai as a co-presenter. Meanwhile, Jia Zhangke’s longtime editor Matthieu Laclau has certainly helped make Mandalay a tauter affair than Z’s previous self-edited outings.
A co-production with French and German outfits, The Road to Mandalay is well-placed for another long trek on the festival circuit after its bows at Venice and then in Toronto. Z will probably be looking at an even bigger commercial breakthrough in Taiwan after its November premiere as the closing film of the Golden Horses Film Festival, with Asian distributors — from Hong Kong or Southeast Asia — possibly dipping in afterward.
Much more than Ice Poison — which, beneath the opiated haze, is essentially a relationship drama between two lost souls — The Road to Mandalay is a markedly universal story about two young lovers torn apart by their very different approaches in confronting their miserable, mortal toil in a foreign land. There’s Guo (Kai Ko), who aims to return home to Burma after earning enough money in Bangkok; meanwhile, Lianqing (Wu Ke-xi, a regular in Z’s fictional films since 2012’s Poor Folk), is more than eager to swap her past with a plusher, urban future.
Having briefly met on the Jeep that carried them from the Burmese border to the Thai capital, Guo and Lianqing reconvene as he bails her out of police custody after a police raid on the restaurant she works in, and then finds her a job at the textiles factory where he earns his living. While Guo is content with his laborious lot, the worldlier Lianqing is forever agitating for something more. She wants to make enough money to get fake ID papers, which will allow her to secure a “proper” urban profession — in this case, a sales executive job at a handbag boutique — and, further down the line, an escape for richer pastures abroad.
As a young and desperate migrant willing to try and do anything to get what she wants, Wu delivers a career-best performance, oozing anxiety and angst. Ko, meanwhile, has suitably adapted and roughened the lovelorn-puppy routine he once made his own before his arrest and detention in China last year for smoking marijuana. Here, he delivers an adequate turn as a “simple boy” (as Guo is known among his co-workers) gone gradually mad for not being able to come to terms with the cynical ways of the world.
The director has also adapted himself well in this new terrain of cities and factories. While seemingly very different, The Road to Mandalay shares many a feature with Z’s documentaries about jade miners in the rural Burmese borderlands: The Bangkok shop floors are as much a vast, dehumanizing space where an individual is merely human capital with a (staff) number. Just as the cragged mines once loom large over the laborers in the countryside, rusty cranes and machinery dwarf the workers here, a menacing presence that could maim whenever it pleases — and it does, a terrifying point which eventually pushes the plot to its gory denouement.
Z’s portrayals of these confined spaces and their routines — workers lugging gigantic swinging axles across the floor, lining up for packages of ice to cool themselves down — are masterful sequences on a par with the real-life imagery he has woven into his docudramas down the years. With his nod to the sparse mise-en-scene of his mentor Hou Hsiao-hsien (who produced his first short film Huashin Incident) and the philosophical reflections embodied in the films of Edward Yang — there’s also a certain, faint echo of A Brighter Summer Day in the narrative here — Z has proved that the spirit of the New Taiwan Cinema remains very much alive.
Production companies: Seashore Image Productions, Flash Forward Entertainment, House on Fire, Myanmar Montage Films, with Bombay Berlin Film Production, Pop Pictures Company Limited
Cast: Kai Ko, Wu Ke-xi
Producers: Patrick Mao Huang, Midi Z
Executive producers: Wang Shih-hsiung, Bob Wong, Angie Chai
Director of photography: Tom Fan
Production designer: Akekarat Homlaor
Costume designers: Rujirumpai Mongkol, Phim Umari
Editor: Matthieu Laclau
Music: Lim Giong
Casting: Tippawan Narintorn, Wassaya Boonnadda
International Sales: Urban Distribution International
In Mandarin (Yunnan dialect)
No rating, 108 minutes