Kipling’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.
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Original trailer (dialogue free)