The Road to Mandalay (再見瓦城, Midi Z, 2016)

再見瓦城前導海報-GokKipling’s Mandalay, as uncomfortable as it seems to us now, is an imperialistic nostalgia trip through the orientalised, “exotic” East. Midi Z adopts a well known line of the poem, The Road to Mandalay (再見瓦城, Zài Jiàn Wǎ Chéng), as an ironic comment on the journey undertaken by the central pair of hopeful migrants crossing from Myanmar into Thailand each for different reasons but both in search of something unavailable to them at home.

Lianqing (Wu Ke-xi) crosses a river on a dingy and is met by a man on a motorbike who takes her to a truck which will take her into Bangkok. Only a second class passenger, Lianqing is about to huddle into a hidden compartment in the vehicle’s boot when a man volunteers to give up his seat in the front so that she can have a more comfortable journey. When they arrive, the man, Guo (Kai Ko), offers to help her find work and gives her his cousin’s phone number so they can keep in touch. Lianqiang is grateful but not particularly interested and tries to fob him off with a jar of shrimp paste as a thank you.

Mostly told through Lianqing’s eyes, her migration story is a difficult one. The friend she’s come to meet, Hua, isn’t even there when she arrives and is in a permanently bad mood after having lost her job due to not having the proper documentation. The other two women in the flat, one of whom, Cai, is also from her village, are currently working in the sex trade – something which they don’t particularly advise Lianqing take up, but finding a job without papers proves near impossible. Lianqiang eventually finds work as a dishwasher in a restaurant which, all things considered, suits her well enough – the work is menial and intensive, but the atmosphere is relaxed, the boss is OK, and she still earns enough to live on and send money home. Guo objects to Lianqing working in such a lowly place and wants her to come to work in a factory with him where the pay is better but Lianqing prefers her independent city life to an oppressive factory-bound existence. Nevertheless when the restaurant is raided she is forced to join Guo’s factory after running out of other options.

Though The Road to Mandalay is often described as a love story, its central romance is as thorny as the protagonists’ liminal status. Guo’s early gesture of self sacrifice looks like altruistic chivalry, but his designs on Lianqing are obvious from the outset. His big brotherly protection soon veers off into a kind of patronising paternalism before developing into something more worryingly possessive. Despite appearing to avoid seeming overbearing, Guo’s personal insecurities eventually lead him into the worst kind of betrayal when he tries to stop Lianqing from acquiring her work papers in the belief that they will take her away from him.

Guo’s philosophies are all short-term. He wants to earn as much money as possible with the idea of eventually going back to Myanmar and perhaps opening a shop selling imported Chinese clothing. Lianqing’s thinking couldn’t be more different. Her plans are longterm. She wants her work permit to get a proper, middle-class city job so she can have a better quality of life. After getting her work permit she wants a Thai passport which will allow her to move on again, perhaps to Taiwan, to further improve her living standards and future prospects. Guo wants Lianqing and he wants her to come home with him. He is not prepared to follow her and knows that she does not envisage the same kind of future as he does. Prompted by Lianqing’s talk of going to Taiwan, Guo asks her if she’s ever thought about getting married. Sensing his intention, Lianqing’s answer is a flat no. It’s too soon, she wants something more out of life than being someone’s wife.

Thailand, however, is not particularly supportive of her dreams. The migrants’ lives are hard. The streets are regularly patrolled at night with police checking IDs and constant crackdowns mean the visa rules are being enforced though bribery is also rife. Migrants present an easy point of exploitation for all as they have no way of protecting themselves and are unable to go to the authorities due to their undocumented status. Lianqing decides to get a permit through the back door, bribing officials through a broker, but the papers she paid a small fortune for are next to worthless and her only other options involve identity theft. At the factory she doesn’t even have an identity as her name is taken away from her and replaced with a number. When another migrant from Myanmar is badly injured in an accident, Lianqing and the others are forced to sign a waver form which absolves the factory of responsibility and declares the matter “settled” with an agreement to pay medical costs but with no further compensation or legal recourse. It’s  no wonder that the common advice swapped between migrants is to leave Thailand as soon as possible for somewhere less hostile to young people with big dreams.

Midi Z’s visual style is broadly naturalistic but slips into surrealism as Lianqing is forced to consider working in the sex trade while Guo impotently throws logs into a furnace with drug fuelled frustration. Lianqing might have been able to escape her economic circumstances, but she can’t escape the net of patriarchy presented by men like Guo who can’t accept her desire for independence and negation of their hopes and dreams which largely rely on her agreeing to conform to their visions rather than her own. Chances of success are slim yet Lianqing refuses to give up on her determination for a better future. For others, however, this dead end life of constant frustration is bound only for tragedy with no hope in sight.


The Road to Mandalay screens at Regent Street Cinema on 26th September before opening in selected cinemas courtesy of Day for Night. Further dates scheduled so far include:

Original trailer (dialogue free)

Cute Girl (AKA Loveable You 就是溜溜的她 Hou Hsiao-Hsien 1980)

f_10046820_1If you’re familiar with the name Hou Hsiao-Hsien, it’s probably for his role in the Taiwanese new wave and as one of the major directors of so called “slow cinema”. It might come as a surprise then that his first three movies were pop star vehicles, heavy on catchy tunes and universal humour but light on deep themes and social commentary. However, even if everything about his first film Cute Girl is intended to be just another run of the mill populist rom-com, many of the elements from Hou’s later films are already present from long lenses and longer takes to interesting ideas about composition and a noticeable town/country divide.

The story is predictable enough, poor boy Da-gang falls for wealthy Wen Wen who quite literally doesn’t give him a second glance. That is until she runs off to stay with an aunt in the country for a last holiday before her father has her married off to the son of an important businessman. Da-gang coincidentally ends up in the same village as part of a survey team for a new road (that’s going to go right through the middle of someone’s house). Being Da-gang he also gets bitten by a caterpillar and ends up being left behind to recover whereupon he begins a tentative romance with Wen Wen at last! However, disaster strikes when her father calls her home to meet her prospective husband – will Wen Wen and Da-gang ever find the happiness they deserve? The answer’s sort of obvious but it’s still fun finding out!

The film features pop stars Fong Fei-Fei and Kenny Bee (from Hong Kong) and is unsurprisingly heavy on pop music including the title track which recurs several times throughout the film. Though Cute Girl is undeniably formulaic and intended as nothing other than disposable entertainment hoping to capitalise on its stars profile and sell a few more records, the film has undeniable quirky charm. Full of strange, not quite slapstick humour and silliness you can’t help but find yourself hugely invested in the screwball style love story of Wen Wen and Da-gang.

No, it’s not a film for the ages. It doesn’t tackle the deep themes Hou would return to time and again in his later career but it does have a degree of heart and commitment that make it a very enjoyable example of the late ’70s/’80s Taiwanese musical romantic comedies.

For the extra curious, here is the undeniably catchy tune itself!

Salute! Sun Yat-Sen (UK Anime Network Review)

articlesubpic1597Reviewed the latest film from Blue Gate Crossing director Yee Chih-Yen Salute! Sun Yat-Sen for UK Anime Network. Also interviewed the director when he was here for the film’s screening as the closing night gala of the 2015 Chinese Visual Festival (under the old title of Meeting Dr Sun). This will also be getting a DVD/VOD release from Facet Film Distribution on 27th July if you didn’t manage to make it to the festival. Good movie, kind of cute but with bite too.


Salute! Sun Yat-Sen is the long awaited new film from Taiwanese director Yee Chih-Yen which arrives a massive 13 years after the award winning Blue Gate Crossing. Like Blue Gate Crossing, Salute! Sun Yat-Sen centres around the everyday life of teenagers with a subtle level of social commentary though this time it swaps sexuality for social inequality and complicated male friendships.

Lefty is a typical high school boy, at once giddy and lackadaisical. His major problem in life is that he’s behind on his school fees and despite his attempts to dodge the issue, it’s become an embarrassment for him around the school. Lefty lives with his grandmother who’s on a low income and he simply does not have the money to pay. That’s when he catches sight of an abandoned metal statue in a school storeroom and hatches on a plan to steal it and sell it for scrap. However, just when it looks like the plan is complete, Lefty and his friends discover another group of boys has hatched on the same idea! It’s then up to Lefty & co to figure out a way of getting to the statue before the other gang.

Salute! Sun Yat-Sen mixes comedy caper tropes with high school drama as the boys try to beat each other to this overly symbolic statue that they intend to sell for scrap. The plan is, of course, a little bit ridiculous – first of all the business of sneaking an extremely heavy and cumbersome metal statue out of the school with no one noticing and then simply taking it to a scrap metal merchant and selling it, all without anyone asking how exactly they came by this distinctive statue, is quite a childishly naive plan but one which makes for quite a lot of comedy. One of the best moments being the boys trying to buy masks to hide their faces from the security cameras and having to go for the cheapest one which happens to be a horrible anime style face which is so cheaply priced because it’s made from an awful plastic which gives you a rash and makes your face itch if you wear it too long.

Sun Yat-Sen is obviously a hugely important, inspirational and well known historical figure particularly in Taiwan but also across mainland China. However, it has to be said that he is not such a well known figure in the UK and, especially as his name is not even mentioned until a news report close to the end, UK viewers may find that the symbolism his name carries is largely lost on them as is the film’s subtle social commentary. Briefly put, Sun Yat-Sen was the “father of the Chinese Republic” who sought to steer China towards a democratic and more egalitarian society after the collapse of the Qing dynasty and the Chinese revolution in 1911. Sadly, his utopian vision for the new China was not to be but his idealism and humanitarian thinking are still widely praised in Chinese culture. He also still appears on Taiwanese bank notes and so may be primarily linked with money in the minds of these young boys, but there is a central irony that it’s a statue of the left leaning Sun Yat-Sen that these money strapped young men have chosen to steal and melt down to get the money they so desperately need to get by.

However, even without grasping all of the complex political allusions to Taiwanese cultural issues both historical and contemporary, Salute! Sun Yat-Sen still succeeds as a warm and amusing coming of age tale in which a group of teenage boys on the cusp of adulthood come to realise a few things about themselves and the culture they live in. Though the central two boys are in someways very different, in other ways they have a lot in common and it’s a fun ride seeing how their conflicting personalities rub up against each other until a tentative friendship eventually develops. The second boy (who repeatedly avoids telling Lefty his name throughout the film) is, in many ways, in a far worse position than Lefty which has made him bitter and devoid of hope for the future but thanks to Lefty’s optimism perhaps begins to think it’s not all as gloomy as he once thought.

Like Blue Gate Crossing, Salute! Sun Yat-Sen is a quiet sort of film where plot takes second place to character (although all the heist shenanigans are undeniably entertaining – especially one horror movie inspired episode). The film feels authentically youthful, manages to imbue its young cast with an unusual degree of realism and it’s very hard not to be charmed by Lefty’s giant smile and happy go lucky attitude. Simply put, Salute! Sun Yat-Sen is unlikely to spark a revolution but its quietly encouraging messages are certainly a good start.


Exit (UK Anime Network Review)

exit 1Review of this existential character drama from Taiwan up at UK Anime Network. This one was screened at BFI London Film Festival but now it’s at Glasgow too and will be getting a further UK release courtesy of relatively new distributor Facet Films in April!


Sometimes it’s the little things that wear you out; stretching over years, becoming almost invisible until a surge of troubles washes over you and leaves you gasping for air in stormy seas. So it is for Ling, an ordinary, middle aged Taiwanese woman who finds herself alone with her husband working in Shanghai (constantly incommunicado even via telephone) and a teenage daughter, Mei Mei, who’s not very interested in spending quality time with her mother when she’s suddenly made redundant from her job as a seamstress at a factory and also discovers she’s heading into the menopause. Ling has also become the de facto carer for her mother-in-law who’s in hospital (not that her mother-in-law seems to appreciate it very much) where she becomes increasingly fascinated by a badly injured man in the bed opposite who has no family to visit him or take care of his daily needs. In a gesture of kindness, Ling begins by trying to ease some of his discomfort by mopping his brow and dripping water on his parched lips but soon transitions to bed baths. This purely physical relationship with a blinded stranger begins to reawaken something in Ling but will it be enough to save her from life’s disappointments?

Exit is the feature debut from director Chienn Hsiang, an award winning Taiwanese cinematographer (Blue Gate Crossing) and stars frequent Tsai Ming-liang collaborator Chen Shiang-Chyi in the leading role. Unfolding slowly with minimal, naturalistic dialogue the shadow of Tsai looms large (not that that’s ever a bad thing) but Chienn handles this extended moment of existential crisis with a steady hand and interesting compositional choices. Occasionally, his metaphors feel a little overplayed – the sticking lock on Ling’s front door for example and her general trouble with blocked exits are nice ideas but call attention to themselves a little too readily. That said, Chen’s central performance keeps the film well anchored in its everyday mundanity and ordinary despair whilst also ensuring Ling maintains the audience’s sympathies.

At heart, Exit is an intense character study of one woman’s struggles in modern Taiwan as she finds herself caught between several different transitionary moments. Everybody in Taiwan, it seems, is on their way to China. Ling has already lost her husband who never takes her calls any more, she’s just lost her job because the factory owner’s sons are all obsessed with the idea of the mainland – all everyone ever seems to talk about is leaving, there’s no more work here. She lives alone in a pretty run down apartment where the wallpaper is peeling off the walls (she reseals it with sellotape) and she’s plagued by amorous noisy neighbours next door. Her only ray of sunshine is the dance club run by a former work colleague which, aside from also providing a bit of income in the form of costuming and repairs, is the only thing that seems to catch Ling’s attention.

That and the mysterious stranger in the hospital with his strange and terrible injuries. Ling’s encounters with the blind man take on an oddly intimate, sensual quality but as soon as his eye bandages come off she becomes shy or possibly ashamed. Likewise, having made herself a nice new dress and wearing the new shoes suggested by her dance club owning friend Ling goes for a rare night out only to catch sight of her daughter. Once again conflicted, Ling removes her make-up in haste ready to confront Mei Mei (who also rejects her telephone calls) only to discover the girl and her boyfriend have already left leaving only a vague air of shame and discontent behind them.

Exit is a nuanced and engaging snapshot of a moment of crisis in an ordinary woman’s life. It may be true that we all lead lives of quiet desperation but Ling’s troubles are, sadly, of the relatable kind. Trapped in a rapidly changing city and isolated by its social circumstances and cultural constraints it isn’t surprising that Ling’s frustrations finally come to a head but like everyone else Ling has to find a way to go on living and watching her getting back to herself becomes an intensely moving experience.