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)

Children of the Dark (闇の子供たち, Junji Sakamoto, 2008)

Children of the Dark posterJunji Sakamoto’s career has been marked by a noticeable split between commercial projects and artier genre pieces but even considering his tendency towards socially conscious filmmaking, Children of the Dark (闇の子供たち, Yami no Kodomotachi) is a surprising entry into his filmography. Starring heartthrob Yosuke Eguchi as an earnest reporter determined to expose the extent of Japanese complicity in the exploitation of Thai children, Sakamoto’s film is hard hitting in the extreme, refusing to back away from the horrors that these children are forced to experience but perhaps taking things too far in putting his young actors through a series of emotionally difficult scenes. Children of the Dark was pulled from its slot in the Bangkok Film Festival for painting a less than idealised picture of the grim underbelly of Thai society but Sakamoto is also keen to point out that the problem is a global one which merely finds an unhappy home in a country many regard as a “paradise”.

Nanbu (Yosuke Eguchi), a Japanese ex-pat reporter living in Thailand, has been handed a hot tip on a difficult piece of investigate reporting relating to the illegal trafficking of human organs. His investigation brings him back into contact with a local NGO who operate a centre promoting educational and human rights whilst helping the impoverished children of the area. The NGO is currently investigating the disappearance of child they’d been trying to save, but the two investigations eventually overlap as it becomes clear that the organ trafficking and sexual exploitation of abandoned children are part of the same deeply entrenched cycle of human cruelty.

Nanbu’s key interest is in the Japanese connection to organ transplant case. A wealthy Japanese couple will apparently be bringing their son to Thailand for an illegal transplant to get around Japan’s strict medical ethics laws which prevent children becoming organ donors. Though it might be thought that the boy’s parents simply believe they will be undergoing a legitimate medical procedure only abroad, they are perfectly aware that the organ they will be receiving will have been acquired specifically for the purpose and will have been ripped from a healthy child rather than transplanted from an unfortunate accident victim.

Using the NGO’s contacts, Nanbu begins to realise how deeply the conspiracy runs. The NGO’s investigations lead them to a brothel in which extremely young boys and girls are kept in cages to be picked out like lobsters in a restaurant by the international clientele each after a different kind of sexual experience. The children are beaten if they refuse and literally “thrown out” in black bin bags should they contract illnesses such as AIDS. When one of the children is killed by a client who overdoses him on hormones, the matter is settled with financial compensation and the body disposed of. Many of these children are orphans from backgrounds of extreme poverty, neglected or abandoned by their parents into a life of sexual servitude in part caused by ongoing economic inequality which is only exacerbated by the thriving underworld enterprises of people and drug trafficking.

Nanbu is, however, only a reporter. Keiko (Aoi Miyazaki), a young and idealistic Japanese woman recently arrived in Thailand to work with the NGO, is committed to saving individual lives whereas Nanbu and the paper are committed to being passive observers exposing the truth in the hope that the whole sordid system will one day collapse. Keiko’s sometimes dangerous naivety is contrasted with Nanbu’s jaded complicity in essentially allowing a young child’s life to be sacrificed to get his story with only the justification that something might be done if the truth were known.

A final revelation, however, proves a step too far even if it encourages all to point the finger back on themselves and accept that personal complicity may run far deeper than most suspect. The tragedy is further undercut by the strange decision to end on an idyllic scene of paradise with a karaoke track playing over the top complete with lyrics pasted on the side – a tonal variation too far given the necessarily somber atmosphere of the the film as a whole. Despite the strangeness of the ending with its unexpected reversals and clumsy attempt at reflexivity, Children of the Dark is an urgent, difficult piece exposing the unspeakable cruelties hidden away in the underbelly of a foreign “paradise”.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Paradox (殺破狼・貪狼, Wilson Yip, 2017)

paradox posterLouis Koo, possibly the hardest working actor in Hong Kong, has played his fair share of heroic (and not so heroic) cops but you’d be hard pushed to describe him as an action star. Proving nothing if not his dedication, Koo gives it his all as the lead in Paradox (殺破狼・貪狼), the latest in the SPL franchise directed by Ip Man’s Wilson Yip. Yip also directed the first in the series but stepped away for the second, though there is no narrative continuity with any of the films and, confusingly enough, the SPL tag seems to have been dropped from the international title altogether. In any case, what Paradox shares with instalments one and two is a series of intensely kinetic action scenes built around a storm of three incompatible personality types coupled with a quest narrative as Koo searches for clues in the disappearance of his 16 year old daughter.

Yip begins the film inside the memories of Hong Kong cop Lee Chung-Chi (Louis Koo) as he remembers the golden time when his daughter was young and worshipped her dad, crawling into his bed in the morning with a video camera ready for a whole day of birthday fun. Lee buys a cute a silver bracelet with a teddy bear charm but it’s the 16 year old Wing-Chi (Hanna Chan) he gives it to. Lee and his daughter are in a restaurant, not at home, and the air between them is tense. A boy turns up and Wing-Chi introduces him as her boyfriend but if Lee is annoyed things are about to get worse. The pair want to get married because Wing-Chi wants “to keep the baby”. Lee barely reacts save for abruptly stepping away from the table. When he returns he seems as if he’s composed himself, but in reality he has already made a catastrophic error of judgement which will force his daughter away from him.

Wing-Chi goes to Thailand to visit a friend and disappears. Lee goes to look for her, breaking out his best investigator skills and teaming up with local cop Chui Kit (Wu Yue) who is soon to be a father himself, but what he finds there leads him onto a dark path of paternal guilt, regret, and suffering whilst wading through the corruption and cruelty of the Thai underworld.

Though the narrative is, in a sense, unimportant, Yip homes in on the nature of fatherhood and the sometimes difficult or conflicted position a father finds himself in when trying to protect his child. Lee may think he’s “doing the right thing” when he clamps down on his teenage daughter’s plans to start a family of her own way ahead of schedule, but then again perhaps this was not his decision to make and ruining three lives to suit himself is nothing more than selfishness masquerading as love. It is his own actions which send his daughter into the path of danger, and then later decide her fate on a split second decision.

Later, Kit’s father-in-law (Vithaya Pansringarm) faces a similar dilemma when he’s threatened by government big wigs and fears his own daughter (and unborn grandchild) may be in danger if he does not play along. Lee’s quest to find Wing-Chi runs in parallel with that of the local mayor to win re-election, only the mayor has a bad heart which causes him to collapse before an important rally. Shady fixer Cheng (Gordon Lam) decides the mayor needs a heart transplant (seemingly unaware of the complexity of the operation and the time needed for recovery) which all links back to a dodgy American ex-pat (Chris Collins) who operates a large scale meat factory as a front for illegal organ trafficking.

The stories of Kit and Lee are linked by the curious use of the classic Chinese pop song The Moon Represents My Heart made famous by Teresa Teng. The song with its constant references to the “heart” which is also visually represented by the cheerful cards around the mayor’s bed perhaps over does things in the metaphor stakes but does its best to tug at the heartstrings in its insistence on a fathomless love in this case of fathers for their children. Koo’s rage only intensifies the more desperate he becomes as his quest hits continual dead ends punctuated by the discovery of various unpleasant characters lurking not just in the backstreets but in the police stations and political institutions of Pattaya.

The action scenes are visceral and kinetic though Koo makes the most impact when acting with stone cold efficiency, leaving the most memorable sequences to rising star Wu and Tony Jaa whose extremely brief appearance as a psychic / extremely buddhist cop may disappoint those deceived by his top billing into expecting his role to be more than a cameo. Nevertheless, Paradox delivers what it promised in Koo’s unexpected metamorphosis into an ultra cool action star whilst sending his moody cop on a dark journey of the soul as he confronts the depths of his own complicity in the corruption which is consuming him.


Screened as the opening film of Creative Visions: Hong Kong Cinema 1997 – 2017

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Co-stars Louis Koo and Wu Yue recorded a new version of The Moon Represents My Heart especially for the film

Teresa Teng’s The Moon Represents My Heart

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)