Return to Burma: LAFF Review

A fiction-reality hybrid offering a fairly literal interpretation of events stated in the title.

Midi Z’s DIY debut feature exposes audiences to the tough realities facing Taiwan, but lacks narrative structure or drive.

Rural Burma, far beyond current headlines of political turmoil and ethnic strife, seems almost like a semi-fictionalized construct as portrayed in Burmese filmmaker Midi Z’s DIY debut feature. Now a Taiwan resident, the filmmaker reveals some of the remote and impoverished region’s unfortunate realities on his first trip back home in many years. As a somewhat curious narrative-documentary hybrid, Return to Burma manages to elicit a modicum of interest on a sociopolitical level, but lacks narrative structure or drive. Foreign-friendly fests and online streaming are best bets for further exposure.

Construction worker Xing-hong (Wang Shin-hong) returns from Taiwan to visit his ethnically Chinese family in northern Burma (aka Myanmar) after a ten-year absence, bearing the cremated ashes of a fellow villager who died in a fall on their worksite. His reunion with his family during the height of the 2010 democratic elections  (the first in decades) is decidedly underwhelming – apparently they have more interest in the earnings he sends home than his actual presence.

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Xing-hong takes his time getting around to delivering the ashes to his friend’s family, who are similarly unemotional over the tragedy. He then spends most of his time visiting small business owners in the area, quizzing them about their capital investments, expenses and revenues, interviewing an appliance-shop owner, a peanut-oil manufacturer and a motorbike-rental operator. Meanwhile his brother prepares to emigrate to Malaysia and find work, the only practical option for underemployed youth with barely a grade-school education.

The largely autobiographical storyline is more anecdotal than narrative, lacking a clearly discernable arc. Understandably perhaps since he’s shooting surreptitiously, Midi Z skirts around the political significance of the 2010 elections that subsequently led to the release of Nobel laureate and democracy crusader Aung San Suu Kyi, but it’s an unfortunate missed opportunity.

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While it appears that Wang has little acting experience, all of the other players are clearly nonprofessionals and seem to be mostly indifferently following the rough outline of each scene, with unclear motivations and uneven stakes. Production quality overall is rudimentary but passable, with the director operating a single consumer-grade digital camera that’s sometimes frustratingly inadequate in frequent low-light situations.

Venue: Los Angeles Film Festival

Production companies: Seashore Image Production, Montage Film Production

Cast: Wang Shin-Hong, Lu Jiun

Director/screenwriter: Midi Z

Producer: Midi Z

Executive producer: Patrick Mao Huang

Director of photography: Midi Z

Editors: Lin Sheng Wen, Midi Z

No rating, 84 minutes