Review: The Road to Mandalay // 再見瓦城 (2016)

The woman, barely out of girlhood, has anxious eyes. She boards the raft awkwardly, hesitantly. Her fingers, clutching at an old rucksack tightly, whiten from the effort. She turns her face down, though her eyes still shift listlessly from beneath her thick fringe. Even as the oarsman navigates to the opposite bank, her visage remains terse. Even as she alights, the expression stays. She may be free—she just crossed a border—but when the new world looks so much like the old, it feels like nothing changed at all.

With an opening like this, it is no wonder that The Road to Mandalay, the Taipei-based Burmese filmmaker Midi Z’s fourth cinematic outing, is fraught with tensions, both psychological and physical, as the two halves of a young couple struggle to survive themselves in a foreign land.

First meeting at the Thai-Burmese border, where he chivalrously chose to give her the better seat on the Bangkok-bound Jeep that he paid a premium for, Guo (Kai Ko) and Lianqing (Wu Ke-xi) are two strangers whose fates intertwine via the dogged romantic pursuits on Guo’s part.

Despite their shared situation, their differences could not be more pronounced: Guo, ever the provincial man, finds contentment in hard manual labor, and a dream of eventually moving back to Burma to open a shop, while Lianqing craves the urban comforts that a move up the socio-economic ladders can provide, and imagines a future beyond continental South East Asia.

Raided and swindled, Lianqing was one whose experiences being victimized only serve to reinforce her desire to leave a world that she is unfortunately familiar with behind—we watch as she eventually decamps from Guo, and the routine-if-hazardous factory job that he set up for her, for the chance of a more cosmopolitan vocation.

All these come to a head, as a jilted Guo tracks her down for one climatic confrontation that is sure to stay on viewers’ minds.

Played with a reedy tenacity by Z film veteran Wu, it is doubtless that audience will sympathize with the worldly Lianqing more, but the undeniable fact remains that Ko’s portrayal of the simple Guo’s descent into a desperate fury is the performance that steals the show.

Shedding the puppy-love matinée idol presence of his prior works for that of a gently benevolent man dubbed by those who surround him as a ‘simpleton’, Ko evokes a sense of pity and endearments that tugs at the heartstrings much more effectively than Wu’s anxious woman—even as viewers understand the realist underpinnings of her pursuits.

Much has to be said too, of director Z’s progress in filmmaking. With clean visuals and sparse sounds, Z’s restraint in spatial portrayals has both merit and fault—while the heavily aestheticized tableau he painted are beautiful and striking, on occasions they lack the messy, lived-in qualities that would have added nuances to the gritty realism of its central themes.

However, with his excision of the long shots that overstayed their welcomes in his early works and his past tendency for rambling narratives, Midi Z has also hit jackpot with a trim but fit work that will no doubt become part of the benchmark against which future Asian social dramas will be judged.

Ultimately, The Road to Mandalay is a film that succeeds because it lack—or is at least, less overt in showing—the naked ambitions that often accompany modern social drama to become the bona fide historical document of the moment. With its commitment to an accessible narrative, it takes the time to immerse the audience in an unseen version of reality that is closer to truth, rather than douse them with an onslaught of poverty porn.

The story of Lianqing and Guo may conclude in an hour and fifty minutes, but their situations run parallel to reality forever, and remain a testament to the stubborn tenacity of humans in crisis as they cling to hope.  

As one contemplates the film, one would begin to understand: The road to Mandalay is all washed out, and there is no way home. Where else to call home now but here?
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