Two terminally ill women slowly fall in love while circling the spectre of death in Na Gyi’s poignant queer romance, What Happened to the Wolf?. Homosexual activity is currently illegal in Myanmar and carries a 20-year prison term. The situation has only declined since the military coup which occurred in 2021. Director Na Gyi has since gone into exile along with his wife, actress Paing Phyo Thu, while her co-star Eaindra Kyaw Zin was herself arrested for protesting against the junta.
Given these conditions, the film may seem in a way coy or perhaps oblique but is also filled with a sense of melancholy longing that culminates in a well earned moment of emotional serenity. As the husband of heroine later suggests, they’ve been unhappy for a long time and only now that she’s been diagnosed with terminal lung cancer and been given only a year at most to live does Myint Myat (Eaindra Kyaw Zin) begin to reflect on her life and regret its missed opportunities. The film opens with her attempting to take her own life, explaining that she did not want to be waiting around to die though has a few “things to take care of” that made her reconsider her decision.
It’s in the hospital that she first encounters Way Way (Paing Phyo Thu), a rebellious young woman born with a hole in her heart who has had quite a tragic life but seems to Myint Myat to have come to an accommodation with the proximity of death. As she later begins to realise, Way Way’s vivacity is also an act of self-delusion to mask her fear of mortality but nevertheless her lust for life begins to reawaken something in Mying Myat who is beginning to wonder what her life which has largely been defined by ideas of conventional success has really been for.
When she laments that she was raised with a “proper system”, it reads both as a mild rebuke against an authoritarian culture and a frustration directed at her own internalised repression. Na Gyi’s camera often shoots with lingering desire, a close up on Way Way’s neck pregnant with longing as a conflicted Mying Myat considers reaching out but cannot bring herself to do so. As she reveals to Way Way, she never saw the point in dancing only for the younger woman to try to teach her how which is really a way of trying to show her how to live.
But Way Way also has her own troubles which have led her to push people away so they wouldn’t miss her when she’s gone, though most of all what she fears is being left behind alone. She rejects her brother out of a mix of guilt and love in feeling unworthy that he gave up his artistic desires of becoming a photographer to become a doctor in order to cure her disease. She takes pictures with his old-fashioned film camera and listens to cassette tapes on a classic walkman as if longing for a long lost past. With her retro sensibility it might seem as if the (slightly) older Myint Myat is falling for the embodiment of her own frustrated youth and she does indeed seem to meditate on the things she lost along the way much as her architect husband gave up painting to work for the father she resents while she poured everything into her business.
The film’s title takes itself from a shadow play Way Way acts out while the pair are holed up in a “haunted” house hoping to see a ghost. A wolf comes across a peacock and is jealous of its beautiful feathers. The wolf pounces, but the peacock flies away unfurling its beautiful plumage as it goes. Myint Myat wonders what happened to the wolf after that, but Way Way doesn’t have an answer for her. In some ways it’s difficult to define which of them might be the wolf and the other peacock for each of them begins to rediscover a sense of beauty in their unexpected connection even while the spectre of death hangs over them both. The film might in a sense answer the question of its title though only in the most melancholy of senses even as the two women transcend themselves as they make their way towards a place beyond the clouds.
What Happened to the Wolf? screens at BFI Southbank 24th April as part of this year’s Queer East.
Original trailer (English subtitles)