What Happened to the Wolf? (Na Gyi, 2021)

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)

A Thousand Fires (Saeed Taji Farouky, 2021)

The whole world turns on oil, but most of us give little thought to where it comes from to the extent that we never really think of oil at all aside from that which it powers. Saeed Taji Farouky’s elegantly lensed observational documentary A Thousand Fires follows a small family in Myanmar who support themselves through unregulated oil digging, operating the kind of hand cranked wells one might associate with 19th century prospecting and getting barely a barrel a day but still fetching more than they might be able to get through farming. Yet this intrusion of modernity continues to disrupt their otherwise traditional existence as they ponder better lives for their children that will necessarily take them far away from their parents and their home. 

As they later reveal Thein Shwe and Htwe Tin once made their money through farming but now they only draw oil. You might think it would be a less intensive occupation, but the rigs require constant supervision and the machinery often breaks either needing immediate repair or resulting in a day’s lost work. Yet Thein Shwe is worried most about his oldest son, Zin Ko Aung, who is wilful and rebellious rarely helping his parents out to the extent the he worries if his son would even be able to start the engine for the well if no one were available to do it for him. 

His mother meanwhile makes slightly passive aggressive comments about a young woman his age who finished high school and now has a good job as the manager of a textile factory in the city. It might not be that there is no way out for him, but the parents worry that as he seems to have rejected both education and inheriting the oil wells he will be left with nothing at all. Their daughter, by contrast, is currently staying with them along with their baby granddaughter having married and moved to another town. Perhaps a part of them knows that in order to give their children better lives they must effectively send them away while worrying if they’ll be alright, if their sacrifices will have been worth it and these other lives are indeed better than theirs. 

To quell some of this anxiety we see them consult a fortune teller to find out if Zin Ko Aung will achieve success only to be told that he’d be better off if they changed his name from the one they gave him at birth to the one the fortune teller suggests. Capitalising on his talent for football they send him to the city to apprentice with a youth team for a year with no way of knowing if it’ll pay off and Zin Ko Aung will be able to make it as a sportsman, as his sister jokes becoming the first famous person from their village able to support the family with his newfound riches. The family also take part in several traditional festivals, praying for a “prosperous life” while eerily paying homage to a god of oil by “feeding the dragon” pouring liquid into a greyish swamp which bubbles and snorts as if burping in gratitude. 

Then again another passerby reveals that a Buddhist priest in their area cleared a hole and set fire to it causing an explosion that rocked the mountain. In an ironic touch, we witness a festival in which young children have their heads shaved in preparation for being ordained as monks before cutting directly Zin Ko Aung enjoying his new city life by getting a fancy haircut drenched in a red smock which strangely resembles religious robes. Another fortune teller the couple visit in the city warns Thein Shwe that his lifeline is short and he must be careful to remember his religion, while adding at that no matter one’s good intentions the only place you’ll find an honest man is in a cemetery.  Simultaneously he tells Htwe Tin that she is the leader of her family and admonishes her that women are overly materialistic and simply want too much. In any case all she seems to want is for her son to find his way even if he has to leave his family to do so. Poignantly as the film ends the couple are left alone, their son-in-law arriving to take their daughter home and their son away in the city while all they’re left with is more of the same dredging oil up from beneath soil and feeding the ever hungry dragon of the contemporary society that barely knows of their existence. 

A Thousand Fires screens in New York March 19 as part of Museum of the Moving Image’s First Look 2022

Trailer (English subtitles)

Money Has Four Legs (ခြေလေးချောင်း, Maung Sun, 2020)

In an opening conversation with the local censor, ambitious director Wai Bhone (Okkar) is cautioned that his film has too much smoking in it which might set a bad example for the young, same goes for drinking. Also, there’s too much swearing, perhaps he could opt for a less offensive substitute such as “futhermucker” for instance, it’s important to show how polite Burmese people are after all. Best to cut the sex scene too. As for the ending, well, that’s non-starter better insert some stuff about how wonderful the police are and make sure the hero either turns himself in or is killed because crime can’t pay when it comes to the movies! As the “conversation” ends, the censor picks up a hefty copy of the 1996 Motion Picture Law and uses it to swat a fly which is rather like what’s just happened to poor Wai Bhone who was just trying to add a little contemporary swagger to the umpteenth remake of a popular gangster movie from 1940. 

To one degree or another, director Maung Sun will break almost all of these rules in meta satire Money Has Four Legs (ခြေလေးချောင်), Wai Bhone receiving a dirty look from an earnest nurse when visiting a friend in the hospital, a cigarette seen briefly in his hand as captured from behind. Set in a Myanmar on the verge of a coup, Sun’s film takes place in a world in a state of collapse in which power cuts are commonplace, banks are going bankrupt, and hypocrisy rules yet all Wai Bhone really wants to do is make art even if everyone keeps telling him it’s pointless. More than political strife Wai Bhone finds himself trapped by the legacy of his filmmaker father whose award, topped with a valuable gold star, sits on top of his bookcase. A neighbour even at one point stops Wai Bhone in the street to tell him he’s not a patch on his dad while warning him not to “destroy the original stories” because “we must safeguard the dignity of our film industry”. 

Even Wai Bhone’s producer Tin Htut tells him that he only gave him the job out of loyalty to his father, but if anyone’s in danger of damaging the dignity of the Burmese film industry it isn’t Wai Bhone. Having shot a series of cheap straight to video flicks, this is Wai Bhone’s first shot at a commercial feature but as he explains to his brother-in-law it’s another remake of popular 40s gangster tale Bo Aung Din, “every remake made money so the producers are fond of it”. Meanwhile, his leading actress complains the lines are “too long” to remember so she’s written them on her hand to read out robotically, the lead actor hardly ever comes to set because he’s also starring in another much better movie, and no one has time to get a permit for shooting so sometimes you might need to hop a wall or two “for art”. If all that weren’t enough, Wai Bhone foolishly casts his brother-in-law Zaw Myint as an extra despite knowing of his tendency for random and unnecessary violence, something which comes back to bite him when he ignores the cinematographer’s advice that his sudden decision to switch to close quarters handheld for a combat scene is likely dangerous. Zaw Myint breaks the hideously expensive camera landing him with yet another debt and the prospect of being out of a job. 

The film’s title is itself an ironic joke which links back to Wai Bhone’s daughter watching a bootleg copy of the animated Animal Farm he ironically picked up for a pittance at the market. Humans have two legs (good), but money has four (bad). No matter how fast you run after it you’ll never catch up, and if it’s chasing you there’ll be no escape. Money is in a sense at the route of all Wai Bhone’s troubles in that it places a strain on his relationship with his wife Seazir (Khin Khin Hsu) who had a steady job at the bank until it went bust in the midst of a money laundering scandal, while his rent is so overdue that his landlady’s already started showing the apartment to prospective new tenants. Wai Bhone wants to make “art” but he can’t do that given the repressive censorship regime of contemporary Myanmar. Meanwhile he still uses money as a marker of success, judging himself for his inability to make it as they find themselves raiding their daughter’s savings account while struggling to pay for the cram school classes she wanted to enrol in because all her friends are going. 

For all of these reasons, he finds himself stepping into the world of film in embodying the figure of Bo Aung Di complete with bandana and fake pistols as he lets Zaw Myint talk him into a “bank heist” mopping up some of that leftover cash his wife mentioned before someone else gets there first only for the bank manager to end up making off with some of it himself while a baying mob hammer at the doors wanting to know what they’re supposed to do now their savings have been sucked into a black hole of impropriety. Wai Bhone only starts to gain a foothold by blackmailing his producer over his affair with the talentless actress, Tin Htut keen to stress that he’s only giving him his job back because he thinks the way he makes films is “artistic” despite having scolded him earlier that films are only successful when they make money so you have to give the audience what they want advising him to cut the action and add more “love scenes” which the censor of course told him to include only as “symbolism”. Wai Bhone really can’t win but despite his foray into crime retains his good heart, temporarily pausing his heist to take an injured dog to the vet, and in the ironic conclusion literally committing a radical act of wealth redistribution as a Buddhist song on the radio sings of wretches getting rich while Wai Bhone if accidentally shares his merits with everyone. 

Money Has Four Legs screened as part of this year’s BFI London Film Festival

Original trailer English subtitles

Bo Aung Din is also available to stream via YouTube though in poor quality and without subtitles

MEKONG 2030 (Kulikar Sotho, Anysay Keola, Sai Naw Kham, Anocha Suwichakornpong, Pham Ngoc Lân, 2020)

Literally on the shores of an ecological crisis, the communities along the Mekong River know better than most the dangers of climate change and increasing industrialisation. Commissioned by the Luang Prabang Film Festival, MEKONG 2030 takes its cues from the recent “ten years” phenomenon, bringing together five directors from different nations along the Mekong to imagine what the situation might be in a decade’s time. 

Environmental concerns and changing times are clearly at the forefront of Cambodian director Kulikar Sotho’s Soul River in which Klark, an indigenous huntsman, discovers an ancient statue in the forest and determines to sell it to buy a better future for himself and his wife having lost everything in a flood caused by deforestation and the affects of increasing industrialisation. Unfortunately he is challenged by Sok, a former fisherman forced onto the land due to the lack of fish in the river, who claims to be the land’s owner and insists the statue is his. An amusing stand off, Klark’s machete vs Sok’s walkie-talkie, signals their respective positions as avatars of new and old. Nevertheless, the statue is too heavy for one man to carry and so they agree to work together, occasionally quibbling over their respective cuts and irritating Klark’s conflicted wife Ladet whose premonition that the statue is cursed is well and truly borne out as the two men begin to lose themselves in greed and suspicion. Yet as her closing voice over reminds us their sin is emblematic of their times in their irresponsible and arrogant desire to “sell” their nation’s ancestral treasures, be they forests, rivers, or statues the protection of which should have been their only duty. 

Depleting fish stocks and industrial pollution are also a persistent theme in the entry from Laos as a worried sister explains to her student brother concerned to see nets covered in dust on his return home from university. Xe is worried because his sister has a bruise on her face and seems to have separated from her husband and children she says to look after their mother who, as it turns out, is immune to the ongoing plague and therefore a valuable commodity to those hoping to find a vaccine. The bruise was apparently caused when their older brother, who has since become a warlord, kidnapped mum in order to monopolise her exploitation. The sister wants Xe to kidnap her back, but the deeper he gets into this awkward situation the more conflicted Xe feels knowing that whatever is actually going on both of his siblings are in effect determined to bleed his mother dry for economic gain. 

The precarious position of the older generation and the side effects of industrialisation raise their heads again in chapter three, Myanmar’s The Forgotten Voices of the Mekong in which well-meaning young village chief Charlie determines to “modernise” his community by inviting a mining conglomerate to begin digging gold on their land. An old grandma patiently teaching her grandson to care for the local herb grown for its medicinal properties is the voice of opposition, pointing out that there is nothing wrong with their lives as they are and so she feels they don’t need the complications of the “modernity” Charlie is determined to bring them. He tells her that he’s the chief now and so they’ll do as he says and so she calmly walks out of the meeting, but her animosity is soon vindicated when farmers complain their livestock has been poisoned after drinking water contaminated by the mine. Not long after a child is taken ill. Devils devour everything, but there is something we can do the old woman assures her grandson: make the mountains green again. 

Shifting into a more abstract register, Anocha Suwichakornpong’s Thai entry The Line takes the river as a protagonist through the film within the film playing on a gallery wall though apparently in some way unsatisfying to its creator. Speaking in a robotic Mandarin, the video places an ironic voiceover on top of images of the river and the city juxtaposing an incongruous family history with a vision of modernity. Meanwhile, a young intern makes smalltalk with her temporary bosses who seem to have no time for her about a weird animal captured on camera in the river near her hometown, and the artist explains her intention of dramatising a vision of space and time through the story of the river.  

The sense of the Mekong as liquid time recurs in the final instalment, Vietnam’s The Unseen River, in which two stories, one of youth and the other age, run in parallel. While a young couple make a visit to a temple hoping to find a cure for the boy’s restless sleep, a middle-aged woman catches sight of a somehow familiar dog that serendipitously reunites her with her long-absent first love who went abroad to study shortly before they dammed the river. In a piece of possibly unhelpful advice, the old monk tells the young man that all he needs to do is “believe” in the act of sleeping. Sinking into a deep sleep is like surrendering yourself to the current he explains, directly linking the rythms of life to the river while the young monk attributes their youthful llistlessness, the failure to see a future that has prevented the young couple marrying, to the inability to dream. The river is both past and future, dream and reality. It is disconnection with the natural world which has so affected the young man, something he perhaps repairs borrowing the monk’s decommissioned fishing rod to gaze upon the wide river under the light of the moon. 

Giving voice to the anxieties of climate change, overdevelopment, the unequal power dynamics of large corporations operating in rural communities, the erosion of traditional culture, and the loss of the natural world, MEKONG 2030 issues a strong warning against ecological complacency but also rediscovers a kind of serenity in the river’s eternal presence even as it is perhaps flowing away from us. 

MEKONG 2030 streamed as part of this year’s San Diego Asian Film Festival. Readers in Poland will also have the opportunity to stream MEKONG 2030 as part of the 14th Five Flavours Film Festival 25th November to 6th December.

Original trailer (English subtitles)