STOP10: Love and Despair on 'The Road to Mandalay'

How do you love when you have nothing? Easy, you love with everything.

Unlike the cheery exultations and exotic depiction heaped on the city by Rudyard Kipling, the same eponymous Mandalay in Burmese-Taiwanese director Midi Z's fourth feature was barely present - all that we see of Myanmar was a riverbank on the way for refugees Lien Ching (Wu Ke-xi) and Kuo (Kai Ko) to reach Thailand for a chance at a slightly better life. Taiwan is the endgame for Lien, who longs for the airy reach of an actual cosmopolitan city, while Kuo is satisfied with the uneasy peace he eked out for them, working in a textile factory while Lien cleared dishes at an eatery.

There was love at first sight, as was often the case when attractive young people are dumped together in a terrible situation, but only on Kuo's part, as was often the case too. He gives up his seat he paid extra for to Lien and takes her place in the boot for the car trip to the city from the border, and fixes her up with a job when she is arrested for being an illegal immigrant. Lien has some affections for him, and it would be hard for anyone in her situation to not to: here is care and concern from a boy who would be willing to give the world for your company with an easy smile. However, Lien is also a dreamer longing for bright lights and clean bathrooms, and it is this naked hunger for something better that proves a tipping point for Kuo, who is fine with the resigned grace of mere contentment in survival.

What happens when you love with everything? You have nothing.

Could there really be love for people whose existences are themselves precarious? Whatever is it, the desperation and the busied fumbling and the longing for comfort? The film does not purport to have an answer, but it does: maybe concern, maybe intimacy. Maybe obsession. Extreme situations do seem to call for extreme measures, but it would not last. That is a certainty. And then, what next?

It would be easy to pigeonhole the film - as do the many who watch many films about survival on the margin and what it takes to make or break refugees - but something about 'The Road to Mandalay' defies classification. Perhaps a character study that undulates beneath the professed skin of a romance; this was never really about the love or the situation, this was a story of two people, one of whom prefers to have things happen and the other preferring to make things happen. Love is a luxury of time and circumstances, not effort, the film seems to say. Kuo never even got laid.

Why do you love for nothing? Because she is everything.

For those who have caught this in the intimacies of their devices or a commercial theatre, there might not be more to think about apart from surface works as they go home, but for those who caught it amidst a community that gathers for soirée and laughs like the clinking of champagne glasses, there could be a cognitive dissonance between the acute sufferings one saw on screen and the beautiful people who clean up nicely and speak with a calculated grace. There is tragedy and there is reality - tragedies end and merit discussions over wine and canapé after the credit rolls, reality rolls on without credit and merits acknowledgement over silence between two minds on the train home.

This is not a Great Movie. Books will not be written about it. Academic fields will not spring up to buttress 'meta-textual studies of its relevance'. The annals of the cultural tastemakers will retain it as a note because it won a big prize at a big event. But it is a good movie, and it stays, and sometimes, that is all you need - some resolute path, some way ahead to teach you how to better love, how to better survive, on the road to Mandalay.

Written By: Alfonse Chiu

Check out which other films made our list of the 10 Most Life-Changing Southeast Asian films.

Alfonse Chiu writes, but for some unknown end.

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