Reset (逆时营救, Chang, 2017)

reset posterTime travel – the solution to all one’s problems. Or is it? Chinese thriller Reset (逆时营救, Nì shí yíngjiù) is helmed by Korean director Chang (AKA Yoon Hong-seung) but it’s also produced by Jackie Chan and is very much in the vein of his recent projects in its non-sensical sci-fi setup and troubling conservative messages. Reset casts a female scientist as its heroine but uses the crisis to explore her ongoing guilt as a single mother with an intense workload who has chosen to dedicate herself to both her work and her son without remarrying. Despite the action packed drama in which Xia Tian plots, shoots, and stabs her way back to her son, the message which is ultimately delivered is that you can’t go back in time and mothers should just give up everything to be with their kids 24/7.

In the near future, the existence of parallel worlds has been confirmed but early research into time travel has been derailed after test subjects transported between universes descended into mindless violence destroying each other and valuable data. Xia Tian (Yang Mi) works for one of the big companies still investigating parallel world theory and has just made a major breakthrough in “projecting” test subjects into the recent past. In order to steal her research for a rival company, Xia Tian’s young son Doudou is kidnapped by mysterious men who give her a limited amount of time to hand over the top secret documents. Xia Tian’s first attempt to rescue her son fails, leading her to make personal use of her findings and travel into the past to change the future.

Reset starts as it means to go on with Xia Tian having a heart to heart with her boss and mentor (King Shih-Chieh) who reminds her that it’s been ages since she broke up with Doudou’s dad and its high time she find someone new. Xia Tian, embarrassed, says she’s dedicating herself entirely to Doudou and doesn’t need anyone else. The bond between mother and son is the focus of the film (though Xia Tian’s clinginess may become an ongoing problem as Doudou grows up) as Xia Tian travels through time to ensure the survival of her little boy no matter how morally compromised she may eventually become.

Use of the time machine apparently has certain side effects, as the first experimenters discovered. The original Xia Tian was a sweet, innocent woman way out of her depth with these fearsome, amoral gangsters but Xia Tian 2 is much more savvy, chloroforming the “nice” version of herself and taking over with the power of hindsight to help her get out of the building before all hell breaks loose. Xia Tian 3, however, has taken things too far, acting without any kind of concession to morality and suddenly becoming some kind of major action star with special forces training for no given reason. There might be a clever point about Xia Tian’s various conflicting roles but Reset doesn’t want to make it so much as have Xia Tian help/hinder herself in a selfish tug of love to save little Doudou who just wants to go home to his mum.

Non-sensical as it is, Reset picks up when it hits its action heavy final third in which Yang Mi, more often seen in sweetly romantic roles, acquits herself well enough as a fiery action star filled with maternal rage. The various layers of the resets generally hang together as the three Xia Tians cross each other’s paths to get Doudou to safety, only to belatedly realise that only one of them can really stay with him forever.

Maternal love is the machine which drives the story forward but it’s also the most problematic element in its partial insistence than Doudou’s fate is somehow Xia Tian’s fault for daring to use her finely tuned brain for the common good rather than just staying home and reading comics with her little boy like a mother should. It’s difficult to escape the conclusion that the lesson is women shouldn’t work, rather than corporations are inherently untrustworthy and that time travel creates problems for everyone (not least editors and scriptwriters) and should generally be avoided. Despite high production values, interesting production design, and an impressive (or is that three impressive) performance(s) from Yang Mi, Reset’s strong action credentials cannot compensate for its unpalatable conservative message and non-sensical science fiction narrative.


Screened at the London East Asia Film Festival 2017.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Angels Wear White (嘉年华, Vivian Qu, 2017)

©22 HOURS FILMS

angels wear whiteChinese cinema has been preoccupied with stories of unfairness and systematic corruption for quite some time but they’ve rarely been as difficult to process and horribly universal as Vivian Qu’s Angels Wear White (嘉年华, Jiāniánhuá). A storm of conflicting social attitudes leaves young women open to the most terrible of manipulations while well placed men are infinitely protected by a system of deference and complicity. Women must be pure, angelic and draped in neutral white – a concept so deeply entrenched that it barely needs manipulating to be used as a tool of control.

Teenage runaway Mia (Wen Qi) is working illegally at a seaside hotel. Wandering the beach before work, she’s rudely shoved out of the way by two hyperactive little girls who want to take a selfie underneath a colossal statue of Marilyn Monroe in her classic pose from the Seven Year Itch. Meanwhile, several sets of newlyweds are busy taking romantic photos in the picturesque though currently overcast coastal environment. Mia spots the girls again later when she is (illicitly) covering reception for a colleague and they’re brought in by a middle-aged man. Mia finds the man suspicious but seeing as he books two rooms lets it go. She pauses slightly when the still over excited girls order themselves a few beers, but delivers the drinks and leaves the girls to it. Remaining worried she keeps her eyes on the CCTV and eventually spots the man trying to enter the girls’ room but does nothing other than record it on her smartphone.

The two girls, Xiaowen (Zhou Meijou) and Xinxin (Jiang Xinyue), are so young they don’t even quite understand what’s happened to them except for a lingering feeling that they’ve been involved in something bad that will get them into trouble. Xiaowen, on the surface at least the more affected by the incident, has a difficult relationship with her parents which leaves her with no one to confide in and no one to defend her. Xinxin eventually tells her mother what happened and we realise the perpetrator is a police chief and the boss of Xinxin’s father who had made him a godparent as a way of currying favour at work leaving Xinxin’s mother to make the reasonable accusation that he has, in fact, sold his daughter to his boss for the prospect of career advancement. Where Xinxin’s mother is angry with her husband but apparently solicitous for her injured daughter, Xiaowen’s mother projects her own guilt for her neglectful parenting onto hers whom she slaps for apparently “slutty” behaviour, cutting her hair short like a boy’s and taking away her pretty dresses and makeup.

Sitting alone in the waiting room outside, Xinxin asks Xiaowen what a “hymen” is while her mother can be heard wailing loudly from inside the consultation room. The issue becomes less that a predatory man has caused irreparable harm to two innocent young girls, but that their honour has been destroyed along with prospects of future marriage now that they are no longer virgins. The problem is not that the girls are not believed or even that they are ignored. On the contrary, their story seems to be accepted to the point that it must be erased. The police chief himself remains unseen but his underling goes to great lengths to hush the case up, attempting to pay off Xinxin’s parents with the promise of healthy financial support on the condition that they drop the charges to avoid embarrassment to the chief but also, it is implied, to Xinxin who will avoid the social stigma of being the girl involved in the high profile rape case. Eventually reuniting with her father, Xiaowen finds a defender but even his outrage is not enough to see justice done as the full weight of a corrupt system comes together to crush his little girl for simply continuing to tell the truth.

It’s easy to ask why Mia did nothing to prevent such an obviously inappropriate situation but then again she is just a girl herself, not so much older than Xinxin and Xiaowen, and would not have been able to help beyond knocking the door to try and scare the man off. She should not have been manning reception in the first place, and is afraid of getting into trouble because she has no ID papers and is working illegally. Because of way the system works in China, Mia would need to go back to her home town get a genuine ID card which she seems reluctant to do leaving her open to multiple kinds of exploitation as she considers the best way to buy a fake one that will allow her to continue working in more legitimate businesses. Her life has been hard and she has come regard compassion as a weakness.

Mia also has to put up with the worrying advances from her friend and big sister figure Lily’s (Peng Jing) boyfriend, Jian (Wang Yuexin), who openly asks if she’s a virgin because he knows people who will pay good money for that kind of thing. Even Lily who seems more worldly wise is not immune to Jian’s heartlessness, later coming into work with rope burns on her wrists and dark glasses to hide a black eye. Before returning to her home village, Lily visits a clinic for painful surgery to reconstruct her hymen so that she can still get married in overly conservative China.

The statue of Marilyn Monroe seems incongruous enough but speaks to all of those same double standards which continue to disrupt the lives of these young women as she girlishly pushes down the skirt on her pure white dress, awkwardly posed on her matching bright white heels. Marilyn is sexualised innocence at its most uncomfortable. The only real defendant the girls have is a dogged lawyer who treats them with kindness, listening to their story with patience and respect in an attempt to uncover the real truth aside from what anyone may want to hear to think they are supposed to say.

Asked by an almost outsmarted policeman why she can’t find something more productive to do, the lawyer replies that there are simply “too many of these kinds of cases”. “Justice” remains a hollow ideal, an essentially fake construct designed to maintain the position of the powerful rather than protect the weak. Unrelentingly bleak but with the faintest glimmers of hope offered by Mia’s final decision, the female solidarity of the determined lawyer, and the newly rediscovered relationship of Xiaowen and her dad, Angels Wear White is a necessarily difficult and challenging piece but one which arrives at just the right time trailing a series of uncomfortable in its wake.


Screened at BFI London Film Festival 2017.

Clip (Mandarin with English subtitles)

King of Peking (京城之王, Sam Voutas, 2017)

king of peking posterListen up, kids. Things were very different in the ‘90s when the internet didn’t really exist and people still queued round the block to get into giant single screen cinemas. Sam Voutas’ second film, King of Peking (京城之王, Jīngchéng Zhī Wáng), is an homage to these more innocent times taking place in a small corner of Beijing where a divorced father and his son are a charming double act of itinerant projectionists screening “Hollywood movies” for a dollar in the town square. Big Wong and Little Wong see themselves as “movie people” but their days are definitely numbered.

Big Wong (Jun Zhao) owns a Soviet era projector and a few reels of not quite recent but not yet classic movies. While Big Wong sets up a giant sheet and readies the reels, Little Wong runs round town “advertising” the event by shouting as loud as he can. The duo get a fair amount of customers but, as one loudmouth points out, this movie came out ages ago and he already has a copy on video at home – who wants to pay a dollar to watch it on a sheet in the square? This is also a question Wong’s ex-wife wants to know the answer to when she unceremoniously turns up and lays into Wong for “exploiting” their son. Wong’s wife left the boy behind claiming she couldn’t look after him but has since changed her mind. She wants an unfeasible amount of money or Little Wong. Little Wong wants to stay with his dad. Finding the money seemed a difficult prospect to begin with but when the projector catches fire and they have to give everyone their money back it seems all but impossible.

Voutas’ film is a father son drama in which the pair start off as firm friends – nicknaming each other Riggs and Murtaugh just like the Lethal Weapon heroes. Curiously enough, Lethal Weapon 4 is one of the films playing in the on screen cinema with a hand painted Chinese poster which places Rene Russo centre stage with Gibson and Glover on either side. Somewhat surprisingly, Jet Li does not feature. Sadly their father/son relationship is set to deteriorate ahead of schedule as Big Wong comes up with a plan which is intended to pay off his wife and get her to leave him and Little Wong alone. Taking note of the rude customer’s comments, Big Wong gets an idea, a set of DVD recorders, and a camcorder he can stuff into the penguin shaped bin in the cinema to rip off the latest releases, design covers, and sell them on DVD on street corners. Pretty soon, the Wongs are ruling the streets with dad’s innovative business model and son’s ruthless sales patter.

Of course, all of this is very morally dubious. Little Wong doesn’t quite like it, but is won over by his dad’s enthusiasm and, after all, aren’t they doing it because they love movies and want to share them with more people? Well, kind of, but it’s mostly for the money and Big Wong’s scheming soon works against him. Unlike his dad, Little Wong’s great love is for volcanoes, and Big Wong said he’d help him build one but he’s always too busy with the “business”. In becoming successful in his plan, Big Wong has forgotten why he started it in the first place and is too slow to see how his moral laxity is affecting the development of his son’s character.

Voutas avoids a neatly happy ending, going for something more realistic but also heartwarming in its own way as father and son end up understanding each other a little better but remain conscious of the growing distance between them. A tribute to ‘90s Chinese cinema with its oversaturated colour schemes, makeshift production budgets and essential red curtain opening, King of Peking is a warmhearted nostalgia trip filled with strange characters somehow left behind by China’s increasing modernisation such as the very young security guard at the cinema who talks about “work units” being a family and barks at his ushers as if they were a revolutionary cadre about to head off into battle. The security guard, officiously checking tickets, asks one customer for his “purpose of visit” to which he replies “for enjoyment and to forget all my poor life choices”. Big Wong has made a few poor life choices of his own and not all of them can be repaired through the magic of cinema, but as King of Peking proves the movie may soon be over but the memories last a lifetime.


Screened at the BFI London Film Festival 2017.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Our Time Will Come (明月幾時有, Ann Hui, 2017)

our time will come posterFor Ann Hui, the personal has always been political, but in the war torn Hong Kong of the mid-1940s, it has never been more true. Our Time Will Come (明月幾時有, Míng Yuè Jǐ Shí Yǒu) was pulled from its opening slot at the Shanghai film festival though it was permitted a screening at a later date. At first glance it might be hard to see what might be objectionable in the story of the resistance movement against the Japanese, but given that this year marks the 20th anniversary of Hong Kong’s handover from British colonial rule to mainland China, there is an obvious subtext. Yet, at heart, Hui’s film is one of resilience and longing in which “see you after the victory” becomes a kind of talisman, both prayer and pleasantry, as the weary warriors prepare for a better future they themselves do not expect to see.

In 1942, school teacher “Miss Fong” Lan (Zhou Xun) lives with her mother (Deanie Ip), a landlady who rents out her upstairs room to none other than Lan’s favourite poet, Mao Dun (Guo Tao). Lan also has a boyfriend, Gam-wing (Wallace Huo), who proposes marriage to her and then announces his intention to leave town. Not really interested in marrying someone who is already leaving her, Lan ends things on a slightly sour note but her refusal is more than just practicality – she wants something more out of life than being an absent man’s wife. Mrs. Fong is an expert in finding out things she isn’t supposed to know (a true landlady skill) and so has figured out that her lodgers are looking to move on. Mao Dun is supposed to make contact with notorious rebel Blackie Lau (Eddie Peng) who will guarantee passage out of Hong Kong for himself and his wife. Unfortunately, he is a little late and a Japanese spy turns up just at the wrong time. Luckily, Lau arrives and solves the problem but a sudden curfew means he can’t complete his mission – which is where Lan comes in. Lau entrusts the group of intellectuals to Lan, instructing her to guide them to a typhoon shelter where another contact will meet them.

This first brush with the business of rebellion provides the kind of excitement Lan has been looking for. Impressed with her handling of the mission, Lau returns and offers Lan a permanent place in his movement as part of a new urban cohort. Her life will be dangerous and difficult, but Lan does not need to think about it for very long. Her mother, ever vigilant, frets and worries, reminding her that this kind of work is “best left to men” but Lan is undeterred. Ironically enough, Lan has never felt more free than when resisting Japanese oppression with its nightly crawls accompanied by noisy drumming looking for the area’s vulnerable young girls. Mrs. Fong blows out the candles and moves away from the windows, but Lan can’t help leaning out for a closer look.

Hui keeps the acts of oppression largely off screen – the late night crawls are heard through the Fongs’ windows with Mrs. Fong’s worried but resigned reaction very much in focus. The schools have been closed and rationing is in full force, but most people are just trying to keep their heads down and survive. The local Japanese commander, Yamaguchi (Masatoshi Nagase), is a figure of conflicted nobility who quotes Japanese poetry and has a rather world weary attitude to his difficult position but when he discovers he’s been betrayed by someone he regarded as a friend, the pain is personal, not political.

Yamaguchi tries and fails to generate an easy camaraderie with his colleague, but the atmosphere among the rebels is noticeably warm. Lan becomes a gifted soldier and strategist but she never loses her humanity – embracing wounded comrades and caring for the children who often carry their messages. When Lan discovers that someone close to her has been captured and is being held by the Japanese she enlists the help of Lau who is willing to do everything he can for her, but coming to the conclusion the mission is impossible Lan’s pain is palpable as she wrestles with the correct strategic decision of leaving her friends behind rather than compromise the entire operation. What exists between Lan and Lau is not exactly a “romance”, the times don’t quite permit it, but a deferred connection between two people with deep respect for each other and a knowledge that their mission is long and their lives short.

Hui bookends the film with a black and white framing sequence in which she also features interviewing survivors of the resistance movement including an elderly version of the young boy, Ben, who is still driving a taxi to get by even at his advanced age. Ben is a symbol of hidden everyday heroes from the pharmacists who treated wounded soldiers, and the old ladies who cooked and provided shelter, to the resistance fighters who risked their lives in more overt ways, who then went back to living ordinary lives “after the victory”. The film’s final images seem to imply that Hong Kong’s time has come, that perhaps the eras of being passed, mute, from one master to another may be nearing an end but the time is not yet at hand, all that remains is to resist.


Screened at the BFI London Film Festival 2017.

International trailer (English subtitles/captions)

Wrath of Silence (暴裂无声, Xin Yukun, 2017)

wrath of silence posterNature red in tooth and claw – life in the arid Northlands of modern China is surprisingly bloody in Xin Yukun’s The Coffin in the Mountain followup, Wrath of Silence (暴裂无声, Bào Liè Wúshēng). The film’s Chinese release has, apparently, been indefinitely delayed for unclear reasons but it’s easy to see what might have given the censors occasion for pause in this tale of missing children, corrupt businessmen, and the relentless lusty greed of the new middle classes. A voiceless everyman forced away from his family by a series of unfortunate events, returns to look for his missing son but finds only a malevolent darkness invading the corners of his once peaceful rural mountain town.

In the winter of 2004, a small boy watches his sheep whilst building a small rock tower and drinking from his Ultraman flask. A short while later, his dad, Baomin (Song Yang), is pulled away from a fistfight at the bottom of a coal mine by a phone call from his wife informing him that their son has gone missing. Baomin drops everything and goes home but he’s still persona non grata in the small mountain village after stabbing the local chef in the eye with a lamb bone during a fight over Baomin’s refusal to sign over his land to developers hoping to open a coal mine.

Baomin’s path crosses with that of two other men, gangster-like mining magnate Chang (Jiang Wu) who has recently been “acquitted” of running illegal operations, and Chang’s lawyer, Xu (Yuan Wenkang), a conflicted single parent. Baomin and Xu are at opposite ends of China’s recently born class system – one educated, successful, and inhabiting the new pristine cities, the other literally rendered voiceless by an act of violence, poor, and living an antiquated rural life in a desert wasteland. Chang exists in the no man’s land between them as an example of the new elite – his life is one of Westernised elegance in his smart study and wood panelled drawing room with its deer heads on the walls. Yet it’s not business acumen which underpins his success but thuggery and a thorough disrespect for conventional morality.

There is a double irony in Baomin’s life in that his original objection to the coal mine has sent him straight into one. Owing vast compensation to the chef whose eye he ruined as well as needing money to pay for his sickly wife’s medical treatment, Baomin has little choice but to leave his farm and travel to a distant city where he can earn the money he needs to pay for his various responsibilities. Not only are the coal mines ripping up the landscape, they’re destroying families firstly through forced absences and secondarily through disease born of industrial pollution.

This veniality is all too plain in Chang’s ostentatious display of needless slaughter as he sits at a large dining table entirely covered in plates of raw meat ready to be sizzled in Chang’s favourite hot pots while a finely tuned slicer runs in the background churning out an endless supply of repurposed flesh. Chang’s overwhelming need for consumption is less about hunger than conquest as his hunting hobby proves but the trophies on his walls are as fake as the hairpieces which cover his receding hairline. The force which drives him is not so much need as vanity, fear, and insecurity. Desperate to be hunter and not hunted, he has abandoned all morality and will stop at nothing to ensure his place at the table is secure.

Baomin will stop at nothing until he finds his son. The film’s title, ironically enough, includes a slight pun in its first two characters which are pronounced “Bao” and “Lie” (the name of Baomin’s son) but mean “violence” and “spilt” while the characters of Baomin’s name (保民) mean protect and citizenry. Baomin is a violent man. According to his wife he was always fond of a fight even before rendering himself mute, but it has to be said that violence is, in his voiceless state, his most efficient method of communication. Flashing pictures everywhere he goes, Baomin chases visions of his son, haunted by small boys in Ultraman masks, fighting monsters far more real than the tokusatsu hero’s usual foes.

Fable-like in execution, the final revelations are heavily foreshadowed though dual meanings are plentiful as in a small boy’s innocent assumption of a classic Ultraman pose which looks eerily like something else to those with a guilty conscience, planting the seed of doubt as to whether it really was quite that innocent after all. Xin shoots with Lynchian surrealism as darkness seems to creep idly into the frame and then hover there, threatening something terrible, like the manifestation of willingly unseen truths. The rapid pace of social change has brought with it a loss of morality that endangers the foundation of society itself, sacrificing the young on the altar of greed while the state turns a blind eye to systemic corruption and cowards save their own skins rather than ease the suffering of others. Filled with a quiet rage mediated through melancholy poetry, Wrath of Silence takes a long, hard look into that creeping darkness but finds the darkness looking back with accusing eyes.


Screened at BFI London Film Festival 2017.

Original trailer (dialogue free, no subtitles)

 

Never Say Die (羞羞的铁拳, Song Yang & Zhang Chiyu, 2017)

Never say die posterBody swapping drama seems to have come back in style of late, though they’ve rarely been as funny as the surprisingly laugh out loud Chinese comedy Never Say Die (羞羞的铁拳, Xiūxiū de Tiěquán). Based on a stage play by the Chinese theatre company Mahua whose last effort Goodbye Mr. Loser did something similar only with time travel, Never Say Die is a story of never giving up, always getting even, and learning to understand yourself through someone else’s eyes.

Edison (Ai Lun) was once an MMA champion, but a scandal three years previously has left him disgraced and reduced to taking dives for his shady boss, Dong (Tian Yu). Edison has a reputation for being good at taking dives because he can make them look so “realistic”, and believes his special talent ought to earn him a few more dollars. Seconds after dramatically hitting the mat, Edison gets a call reminding him he’s late for a weigh-in at a “real” fight. When he gets there he’s confronted by a bulldog reporter, Xiao (Ma Li), who questions him about his history of taking bribes. Reacting angrily, Edison soon realises Xiao’s boyfriend is none other than top MMA fighter and arch-rival Wu Liang (Haowen Xue).

Just to make things more complicated, Xiao is also the daughter of Edison’s manager, Dong, whom she hates and is determined to expose for his corrupt dealings. Edison chases after Xiao when he and Dong discover her recording a very compromising conversation but after ignoring a warning sign the pair end up on a rooftop during a thunderstorm. Edison bumps into Xiao, kissing her by mistake and pushing her into the pool in which they then both get struck by lightning. Waking up in hospital, each of them discovers they’ve come back a little different than they remembered.

This being China with its relatively stringent censorship laws, the body gags are kept to a minimum with Xiao suddenly dropping her reporter’s poise for “manly” roughness and Edison becoming subtly effeminate. Both are horrified by the sudden colonisation of their own bodies and resentful that in order to look after it properly someone they intensely dislike is going to have to be very aware of their most intimate features. This is especially true of Edison who reacts to his new found femininity in the predictable way by fondling his own breasts and then having a fantastic time in a ladies’ only bathhouse (an extended set piece ironically set to YMCA).

The gag is simple enough but actors Ai Lun and Ma Li commit so totally to their new roles that the increasingly absurd situations ring true right up until the trio end up learning Kung Fu from a possibly gay, resentful deputy chief monk (Teng Shen) at a mountain retreat. Veering off from the standard rom-com route, Never Say Die makes a brief sojourn in revenge genre after Xiao finds out some unpleasant facts about Wu Liang (through being Edison) and decides she needs to get her own back by humiliating him in the MMA ring. Edison may have been a champ, but despite his physical training, Xiao is still an elegant female reporter who’s not exactly used to being in the middle of a fight.

Never Say Die does not manage to escape the inherently sexist bias of the gender swap movie, but it does its best to mitigate it. It is problematic, in one sense, that Xiao needs to “man up” to get revenge on her dreadful boyfriend and then is sidelined when it comes time for Edison finish the job for her, but on the other hand she is the more capable and pragmatic of the pair who teaches Edison how to get himself together whilst playing a supporting rather than leading role. Perhaps betraying its comedy stage show routes, the script may appear episodic and meandering but it’s all brought together in grand fashion at the end with nary a gag wasted. The lesson is that eventually you have to get off your high horse and really look at yourself and others whilst resolutely refusing to back down to dishonest bullies if you really want to earn the right to be happy in yourself. Hilarious and emotionally satisfying in equal measure, Never Say Die is an unexpected comic delight which proves surprisingly subversive even in its superficial innocence.


Currently on limited release in UK cinemas courtesy of Chopflix.

Original trailer (Mandarin, no 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)