Sad Beauty (เพื่อนฉัน…ฝันสลาย, Bongkod Bencharongkul, 2018)

Sad Beauty posterToxic friendship poisons the lives of two young women each somewhat adrift in the modern Thai society in Bongkod Bencharongkul’s noir-infused tale of betrayals and frustrated futures, Sad Beauty (เพื่อนฉัน…ฝันสลาย). A former actress, Bencharongkul’s post-credit’s dedication may imply a degree of autobiographical inspiration, but the film’s uneasy mix of the upscale world of the showbiz elite and the relatively humble lives of the ordinary people on its fringes can be no accident as the two women at its centre struggle to maintain their lifelong friendship in the face of intransigent social pressures.

Yo (Florence Faivre), a famous actress and model, and Pim (Pakkawadee Pengsuwan), an ordinary young woman, have been friends ever since they were little. The friendship is close and intense, but Yo often over relies on Pim’s unwavering kindness, all take and no give, while Pim remains in awe of her beautiful and talented friend, unwittingly fulfilling the role of an unofficial assistant. Yo’s career has hit a rough patch thanks to an unwise public rant and subsequent refusal to apologise while her personal life is also threatening to implode thanks to an increasing drug and party habit. Pim maybe the only one able to prevent Yo’s self-destructive habits from going nuclear, but Pim has problems of her own – she has recently been diagnosed with cancer and, for a change, is now the one in need of care and support. Already strained, things go from bad to worse when the girls return home to Pim’s one night and discover her mother badly beaten by Pim’s drunken and abusive step-father who then turns on them. During the struggle, the step-father is killed and the two friends find themselves on the run with a dead body they don’t know how to get rid of.

A friend will help you move, a real friend will help you move a body – so the old adage goes, but the sudden introduction of crime on top of cancer and persistent narcissism injects another layer of complication into the friendship of the two women. Whether they like it or not they are now bound by something more than natural affection or loyalty and the increasing claustrophobia of their guilt forged connection cannot but paradoxically push them apart. Though Pim, who is perhaps in a way glad to have ended her mother’s suffering, seems to put the trauma of the crime and its aftermath behind her while consumed with mortal fear and the pain of her illness, Yo is haunted and even if her chastened attitude helps to put her career back on track, her self-destructive pursuit of sex and drugs and continues unabated.

When Pim tearfully revealed her cancer diagnosis to Yo, Yo promised she would be there for her no matter what. She promised the same thing again when Pim was trying to decide between chemo and “natural” treatments, but Yo is selfish and afraid – she fails her friend by refusing to accept the seriousness of the situation and offering only superficial reassurances that everything will be alright. Somehow or other, Yo manages to make even Pim’s suffering all about her, finally ready to be “supportive” only in time for the tragic finale in which she realises what she had only in losing it.

Strangely, the murder and its grisly coverup recede into the background – the real “crime” here is in the failure of friendship and the betrayal of a sacred trust. Yo took Pim for granted, relying on her for unconditional emotional support but refusing to offer much of anything in return. She basked in Pim’s admiration but also in her essential ordinariness as way of making herself feel superior, irritated when handsome men show an interest in Pim and not in her. Meanwhile Pim pines for her friend, longing for the reciprocity which is so defiantly absent yet also grateful for the sentiment of friendship and understanding (if also resentful) of Yo’s various reasons for retreating into solipsistic oblivion. This is perhaps the “sad beauty” of the title as the two women attempt to cling on to their friendship even while knowing that it must someday end, allowing the spectre of that final disappointment to poison what it is they have in the present.


Sad Beauty + introduction and Q&A with Director Bongkod Bencharongkul screens as part of the seventh season of Chicago’s Asian Pop-Up Cinema at AMC River East 21 on 26th September, 6.30pm. Tickets on sale now!

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Premika (เปรมิกาป่าราบ, Siwakorn Jarupongpa, 2017)

Premika posterHorror and comedy are often more compatible than it might seem, but despite the outward ridiculousness of Thai ghost story Premika (เปรมิกาป่าราบ, Premika-Parab) the issues at its heart are deadly serious. A selection of guests assembled as part of a PR launch for an isolated hotel resort soon find themselves plagued by the vengeful spirit of a murdered karaoke girl and forced to sing for their lives while across town a noble policeman tries to convince his less dedicated colleague that they still have a duty to find the person responsible for a gruesome murder even if the victim was likely “just another worker kid”. Xenophobia, homophobia, sexism, police corruption, people and organ trafficking, exploitation and a host of other social ills become fine fodder for a vengeful ghost but, perhaps, not so much for comedy.

A dismembered body is discovered in the forest. Honest policeman Lt. Poom (Todsapol Maisuk) is determined to investigate the crime-scene despite his sergeant’s attempt to order the rest of the men back to the station as soon as the commanding officer has left the area. Sgt. Ped (Kittipos Mangkang) writes the unfortunate girl’s name down as “Premika” – taken from the label on the cosplay sailor suit she is wearing and abandons the case.

Meanwhile, a number of guests including several celebrities, a film crew, and a couple of competition winners on a delayed honeymoon, assemble at a remote hotel as part of a soft launch PR exercise. The trouble starts when two vacuous Instagrammers power up an old karaoke box sitting in the reception area for decorative purposes. Unbeknownst to them, the box is a definite health hazard because it contains the rotting heart of a murdered girl jumped started into a vengeful fury as her ghost finds ample scope for revenge in these variously troubled souls.

To leave the ghost to one side, the guests begin to argue amongst themselves as they’re forced to spend time together in the otherwise isolated hotel, hardly noticing the strangeness of the goings on which include blood pouring from the taps and sudden blackouts. Once the karaoke loving ghost arrives she challenges each of them to sing for their lives – if they get the words wrong, go off key, or fail to get over 80 points on a song picked at random they will fall victim to her bloody axe of vengeance.

There is however a method to her madness – the ghost is looking for her own killer who happened to be completely tone deaf, leaving her with a deep seated hatred of those who hog the mic but can’t sing. Finally she gets the chance to sing her own sad song of vengeance in which she reveals the tragedy of her past – a poor farm girl sold into the big city red light district and then unable to escape because of the money she “owes” to her captors. Molested, beaten, raped, she finds herself exploited by men with no sign of escape and, as the news paper reports at the climactic moment record, she is far from alone. The police are themselves complicit in a vast ring of female exploitation and people trafficking. It’s no wonder Sgt. Ped wanted to forget the whole thing – after all “it’s just another worker kid, who cares”. Lt. Poom at least cares, reminding his sergeant that the victim had a mother too and deserves their respect in death even if they failed to protect her in life.

Prioritising the silly comedy over the serious issues, Premika fails to make the contrast hit home, allowing the humour to undermine the inherent critique of a misogynistic society while also indulging in some of the very ideas which support it to get a few cheap laughs. While there is a quiet lament for unrequited, unspoken same sex love, the androgynous photographer’s ambiguous gender is a constant source of comedy (even if the homophobic/anti-trans slurs directed in their direction eventually send a microphone right through the abusers chest) lending a slightly sour note to the proceedings as “Premika’s” axe continues to fall on the enablers of misogyny. 


Premika screens as part of the New York Asian Film Festival 2018 on 13th July at 8.15pm.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Promise (เพื่อน..ที่ระลึก, Sophon Sakdaphisit, 2017)

The Promise Thai 2018 poster20 years on the Asian financial crisis continues to loom large over the region’s cinema, providing fertile ground for extreme acts of transgression born of desperation in the wake of such a speedy decline. Sophon Sakdaphisit’s ghost story The Promise (เพื่อน..ที่ระลึก, Puen Tee Raluek) places the financial crisis at its centre in its cyclical tales of betrayed youth who find themselves paying heavily for their parents’ mistakes through no fault of their own. Yet there is a fault involved in the betraying of a sacred promise between two vulnerable young people made half in jest in a fit of pique but provoking tragic consequences all the same. Sometimes lonely death chases the young too, trapping them in solitary limbo growing ever more resentful of their heinous betrayal.

In 1997, Ib (Panisara Rikulsurakan) and Boum (Thunyaphat Pattarateerachaicharoen) are best friends. Daughters of wealthy industrialists making an ill fated move into real estate with the building of a luxury tower block destined never to be completed, Boum and Ib may have been separated by being sent to different schools, but they spend all of their free time together, often hiding out on the construction site fantasising about sharing an apartment there and listening to sad songs on Ib’s ever present Discman.

When the crisis hits and their fathers are ruined, the girls pay the price. Not only are they left feeling betrayed and humiliated in being so abruptly ejected from their privileged world of mansions and horse riding, but also suffer at the hands of the fathers they now despite – Ib more literally as she is physically beaten by her strung out, frustrated dad. Already depressed, Ib talks ominously about a gun her mother has hidden in fear her father may use it to kill himself. When Boum falls out with her mum, she gives the go ahead for a double suicide but can’t go through with it after watching the twitching body of her friend, lying in a pool of blood after firing a bullet up through her chin.

20 years later, Boum (Numthip Jongrachatawiboon) is a successful industrialist herself, apparently having taken over her father’s company and turned it around. The economy is, however, once again in a precarious position and Boum’s business is floundering thanks to a set back on a high profile project. The idea is floated to finish the tower left incomplete by the ’97 crisis to which Boum reluctantly agrees. Meanwhile, Boum’s daughter Bell (Apichaya Thongkham) is about to turn 15 – the same age as she was when she agreed to die with Ib, and has recently started sleepwalking in ominous fashion.

Sophon Sakdaphisit neatly compares and contrasts the teenagers of 20 years ago and those of today and finds them not altogether different. In 1997, Boum and Ib keep in touch with pagers and visit photo sticker booths in the mall, splitting earphones to listen to a Discman while they take solitary refuge at the top of a half completed tower. In 2017, Bell never sees her friend in person but keeps in touch via video messaging, posting photos on instagram, and sending each other songs over instant messenger. Yet Bell, in an ominous touch, still graffitis walls to make her presence felt just as her mother had done even if she fetishises the retro tech of her mother’s youth, picking up an abandoned pager just because it looks “cool”.

In 2017, the now widowed Boum appears to have no close friends though her relationship with her daughter is tight and loving. A “modern” woman, Boum dismisses the idea that a malevolent spirit could be behind her daughter’s increasingly strange behaviour but finds it hard to argue with the CCTV footage which seems almost filled with the invisible presence of something dark and angry. Realising that the circumstances have converged to bring her teenage trauma back to haunt her – Ib’s suicide, the tower, her daughter’s impending birthday, Boum is terrified that Ib has come back to claim what she was promised and plans to take her daughter in her place in revenge for her betrayal all those years ago.

Bell is made to pay the price for her mother’s mistakes, as she and Ib were made to pay for their fathers’. Motivated by intense maternal love, Boum nevertheless is quick to bring other people’s children into the chain of suffering when she forces a terrified little boy who has the ability to see ghosts to help her locate the frightening vision of her late friend as she darts all over the dank and spooky tower block, threatening the financial security of his family all of whom work for her company and are dependent on her for their livelihoods.

In order to move forward, Boum needs to address her longstanding feelings of guilt regarding her broken promise – the suicide was, after all, her idea even if she was never really serious and after witnessing her friend die in such a violent way, she simply ran away and left her there all alone and bleeding. Yet rather than attempting to keep her original promise Boum makes a new one with her imperilled daughter – that she will keep on living, no matter what. The slightly clumsy message being that commitment to forward motion is the only way to leave the past behind, accepting your feelings of guilt and regret but learning to let them go and the ghosts dissipate. Sophon Sakdaphisit makes use of the notorious, believed haunted Bangkok tower to create an eerie, supernaturally charged atmosphere of malevolence but the ghosts are in a sense very real, recalling the turbulence of two decades past in which fear and hysteria ruled and young lives were cut short by a nihilistic despair that even friendship could not ease.


Screened at the 20th Udine Far East Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Malila: The Farewell Flower (มะลิลา, Anucha Boonyawatana, 2017)

Malila posterAnucha Boonyawatana’s second feature, Malila: The Farewell Flower (มะลิลา), opens with a quotation from a 19th century poem. The poem laments that even a Baisri painstakingly created to honour the gods will eventually be cast away once it has served its purpose. No longer divine, its soul departed, the ornament is just another thing to be disposed of. Like the beautiful Baisri, two men’s souls will briefly intertwine only for the flowers of their love to wither on the vine, fading away with the great work still incomplete. This incompleteness, the lingering sense of absence and irreconcilable longing, propel the one left behind onto a spiritual journey hoping to discover if the answers to his need lie within or are not to be found at all.

Shane (Sukollawat Kanarot), the owner of a jasmine plantation, has recently begun to rebuild his life following a period of heavy drinking during which his wife left him and his young daughter was killed by a python in the jungle. Reuniting with his former lover, Pich (Anuchit Sapanpong), Shane is distraught to find out that he is terminally ill with lung cancer and has decided to give up on conventional medicine and devote the rest of his life doing the things that make him happy. Pich’s one form of “treatment” is in his constant making and dispatching of “Baisri” – ornaments constructed from leaves and flowers for ceremonial occasions which, painstakingly created, must be sent away on the river after they have fulfilled their purpose.

Jasmine flowers are, as Pich remarks, too weak – they wither before the Baisri is completed. Though the two men are able to rekindle their romance, their time is limited. Shane contemplates becoming a monk in the hope that his good karma can be transferred to Pich but it is not to be. Alone, he sets out on a spiritual journey guided by another monk hoping to encounter the ghosts of himself and of his loves to absolve himself of his guilt and loneliness.

Set against the beautiful Thai landscape, Malila is a tale of fading flowers and eternal regrets. The art of Baisri requires intense focus and dedication in order to repurpose and reorder nature into something essentially manmade but beautiful. Later, during his quest, Shane will be met with a terrifying though no less intense experience when his guide and fellow monk instructs him in the art of corpse meditation. The sight of the body, putrid and infested with hungry maggots busily going about their business, presents a strong contrast with the otherwise idyllic scenery and forces a more literal contemplation of the process of decay as the human form dissolves leaving only memory and a ghost of past emotion in its place.

Ironically, or perhaps not, a Baisri is intended to mark a new beginning – a “farewell” on an onward journey. Shane sets off on a spiritual quest, suffering nobly in the forests with their frequent rainstorms and learning to be in the moment in the company of the comparatively better experienced monk who guides him, a former soldier now on the spiritual path. His search is internal but illuminated by the world around him and his gradually increasing connection with it.

Eventually transcending this world for another, Shane begins to find his answers and finally cleanses himself of his loss and suffering. Mixing lyrical poetry with beautifully photographed naturalism, Anucha Boonyawatana tells a painful tale of love lost and found, hearts broken and repaired, and finally of acceptance both of one’s self and of the transience of all things. Malila: The Farewell Flower is a parting gift to a departing love, filled with sorrow and regret but also with beauty even in decay.


Screened at BFI Flare 2018.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Bad Genius (ฉลาดเกมส์โกง, Nattawut Poonpiriya, 2017)

Bad GeniusesThe world over, education is held up as the best path out of poverty but it is also true that the cards are stacked against those who come from disadvantaged backgrounds when it comes to academic success. Nattawut Poonpiriya’s Bad Genius (ฉลาดเกมส์โกง, Chalard Games Goeng) is part exam-set heist movie, morality play, coming of age tale, and attack on social inequality. Bright kids study hard for scholarships that will send them to foreign universities and then onto a secure middle-class life, but while they work themselves to the bone the less able rich kids get there first thanks to the resources and connections their wealth brings them. When locked out of a system, attacking it from underneath seems like a good idea, but then again there are always hidden dangers even the finest mind fails to see.

Lynn (Chutimon Chuengcharoensukying) is an extremely bright girl. Her father (Thaneth Warakulnukroh), a schoolteacher, wants to send her to an exclusive high school which has a reputation for sending graduates to foreign universities. Lynn’s achievements are impeccable and there’s very little chance the school won’t want her but her interview starts to go south when she wavers on the question of whether she actually wants to go there. Showing off her maths skills, Lynn proves that her dad will be paying a lot more in additional costs on top of the fees and she’s not sure it’s worth it.

This piece of honesty coupled with her swift mental arithmetic gets her offered a scholarship but Lynn finds it hard to settle in to her new “elite environment” until she ends up bonding with the less bright but cheerful and bubbly Grace (Eisaya Hosuwan). Things begin to come unstuck when Lynn ends up helping Grace cheat on a test so that she can achieve her dream of acting in the school play. Grace has a big mouth and so her boyfriend, Pat (Teeradon Supapunpinyo), also wants in on the action. Pat is not Lynn’s friend and she’s not keen but when he offers her a substantial amount of money Lynn can’t help but be swayed. Soon enough it’s not just Pat and Grace but half the school and Lynn finds herself plotting a complex conspiracy of examination fraud which involves international travel and extreme feats of memorisation.

The saddest part is, all of this starts as a mistaken attempt at friendship. Lynn’s first mistake was helping Grace cheat when became clear she’d never get the grades. She did this to help her friend who was worrying about being kicked out of the school play just because her maths is bad. Likewise she doesn’t want to help Pat, but doesn’t want to let Grace down and can’t deny the money is helpful. Little by little, Lynn is seduced by all the adoration she’s getting from these rich kids who wouldn’t give her a second look ordinarily but are now entirely dependent on her in their academic lives. Her finely tuned, systematising mind loves solving the puzzle of the perfect scam while her loneliness leaves her basking in her newfound popularity.

Lynn’s seduction into the world of cheating is partly born of a kind of class rage but it comes from a surprising direction. Grace, a blabbermouth, lets slip that the school charges its fees at a very uneven rate. The less able students like Grace and Pat are paying a kind of idiot tax. Not having met the academic requirements, they’ve bought their way in through paying higher fees and making donations to the school. Even Lynn’s father has payed a significant amount in “tea money” despite her scholarship. This knowledge provokes a kind of outrage in Lynn, disappointed with the school’s lack of integrity. Cheating gains an additional attraction in getting back at the “corrupt” school system, but Lynn hasn’t thought it through. She thinks this is a victimless crime – the dim rich kids get their grades and please their parents, she gets rich, everyone is happy. Lynn hasn’t considered how taking the rich kids’ money makes her an enabler of the very system she rails against in allowing them to continue using their privilege to get ahead at the expense of genuinely talented students like herself and her friend/rival Bank (Chanon Santinatornkul).

Smart as she is, Lynn is not so much of a people person and consequently it takes her quite a long time to realise she is being exploited. She’s drawn to Bank because, like her, he also comes from an impoverished background and reminds her of her father in his absentminded goodness. Lynn breaks her own heart when she realises that all her scheming has destroyed the thing she loved as Bank’s pure soul becomes corrupted by cynicism in realising it will never matter how many exams you pass, the rich kids will always have everything zipped up tight. Rather than join the rat race, there might be a better way for smart people to earn money fast by exploiting the obvious weaknesses of the elite’s spoiled children rather than expending time and energy playing by the rules.

Shot with rigorous attention to detail, Bad Genius is both tense exam room thriller and humorous teen drama which lays bare the negative effects of pressurised education and social inequality on the hopes and dreams of young people. Lynn’s passage from isolated smart kid to criminal mastermind is heartbreaking in its quietly devastating conclusion in which she realises honesty and integrity have their own value but also that the choice has always been hers and she has the power to own her own story rather than allow someone else to claim it for her.


Screened at the BFI London Film Festival 2017.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Pop Aye (Kirsten Tan, 2017)

pop aye posterLife’s crises can take many forms but when they involve elephants it’s usually with a little more distance than in Kristen Tan’s whimsical debut, Pop Aye. A metaphorical return to source, a man entering late middle age tries to reclaim his childhood innocence by walking backwards (with an elephant) but discovers that you really can’t go home again. Man and elephant set off on a classic buddy movie road trip, enjoying a selection of encounters with fellow travellers each with a few lessons to impart.

A man in late middle age, Thana’s (Thaneth Warakulnukroh) carefully crafted life seems to be imploding all at once. The first building he designed, Gardenia Square, was an elegantly appointed modern shopping centre which seemed to perfectly reflect the growing consumerism of the ‘80s. 30 years later his futuristic design is now dated, and Gardenia Square is set for demolition to make way for the next modernist masterpiece ironically titled “Eternity”. If that weren’t depressing enough, the son of Thana’s former partner has taken over the business but has none of his father’s loyalty and is determined to sideline the office’s silly old man through pointedly underhanded ways such as deliberately telling him the wrong time for meetings and depositing the physical 3D model he spent a night at the office finishing with all the other rubbish in a now disused room.

If his work life is failing, Thana’s home life isn’t doing much better. His shopaholic wife, Bo (Penpak Sirikul), has little time for him and when Thana discovers her hidden vibrator, he finally realises he is entirely obsolete in every area of his life. So when he catches sight of a beautiful elephant dressed in elegant attire ready for posing for photos with foreign tourists, Thana has an immediate reaction which takes him right back to his boyhood days spent in the company of family pet, Popeye (Bong). Tracking the elephant down again and singing the cartoon’s famous theme tune to verify his identity, Thana decides to buy him (much to his wife’s horror). Seeing as you can’t really keep a giant elephant in your back garden, Thana decides his destiny is to take Popeye back to his rural village where he believes his uncle will look after him.

Undoubtedly part metaphor, Popeye represents the innocence and natural beauty of pre-modern Thailand – the very qualities Thana feels himself to have betrayed when he chose to leave home in less than ideal circumstances to pursue a “better” life in the big city. Thana got what he wanted. He became successful, wealthy, in some sense fulfilled, but now just when he should be entering a more contented phase of his life it’s all crumbling away from him and his ambivalence about the sacrifice he made as a young man is beginning to resurface. He thinks he can put something right by “rescuing” Popeye and reclaiming these qualities in the process but, as usual, nothing’s quite that simple.

Thana’s flight is as much from the modern world as it is from himself. Feeling unloved, Thana also feels eclipsed by his times, held in contempt by the younger generation whose sleek suits and obvious insincerity are a poor match for his disheveled befuddlement. This is a world in which monks accept Visa and take photos of elephants (which must surely be ten a penny) on their tablets. The city takes you in as quickly as it’ll spit you out, Thana warns a young truck driver, but his rare moment of direct emotional honesty is shrugged off as the rantings of an old man.

Despite the coldness of city life, Thana mostly meets warmhearted people on his journey through the countryside, beginning with a roadside saint who describes himself as being “like a tree” in the way he stays rooted to the spot observing the people and cars going by. Dee, noticing Thana’s blistered feet offers him his flip-flops which he won’t need anymore because he’s going to see his brother in Heaven. After all, even trees have to die someday. Grateful to the man, Thana takes Dee under his wing and vows to help him achieve his final wishes, but his intervention may have unforeseen consequences.

Thana even generates a strange bond with the policemen who arrest him for cluttering up the scenery in his nice middle-class neighbourhood which eventually leads him to a rural bar where he seems to meet a kindred spirit in Jenny – a melancholy transgender woman with a longstanding resentment of the bar’s resident “hostess”. Despite hitting it off with Jenny who seems to understand his particular pain, Thana disappoints himself by ending up in a humiliating, unsolicited situation with the bar girl but finds the equally disappointed Jenny forgiving and still willing to help a fellow traveller in need even if, as seems to be the case in much of his life, Thana has allowed himself to be bamboozled into doing something he didn’t really want to do.

At the end of his long, strange journey, Thana finds his illusions shattered, his romantic dream of his childhood home exposed as a mix of memory, nostalgia and idealism. Thana ends up where he started, only with a little more clarity and a new trend towards acceptance rather than defiance. He may think of Popeye merely as the manifestation of the innocence he sacrificed in childhood, but Popeye is his own elephant with his own ideas about his future which might or might not include Thana. Ending on a slightly upbeat note in which Thana is perhaps not as unloved as he believed himself to be, Pop Aye is charming odyssey through middle-age malaise set against the beautiful Thai landscape and told with a whimsical, melancholy humour.


Screened at BFI London Film Festival 2017.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

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)