Review: Mudras Calling (2017)

Trying to write a review for Mudras Calling, a new Burmese film by director Christina Kyi, has given me quite a headache.  

To illustrate this, this review also reviews the process by which I try to understand the film. I had intended to thereby also show why a film review is important by demonstrating that reviews can help an audience make sense of what they felt when watching a film. Unfortunately, Mudras Calling is not a great example to use as for the most part it is not emotionally engaging and is generally confusing. Hence my headache. How do you make sense of something that barely makes sense?

A film for me operates on 3 different levels – text, texture and context. Now, most of the time, not every film is going to do great on all 3 fronts, but the truly great films do. They are saying something important (text), at the right moment (context) and execute it with great artistry in its medium, namely sight and sound (texture).

So let’s start with text. Text in a sweeping way, is about what the story is telling us. For most people it’s the synopsis or plot, but it can go deeper in the hands of competent writers and directors to include elements such as dramatic irony, subtext, allusions, homage and much more.

Here though, the plot is quite straightforward. Jaden played by Zenn Kyi, the second time he's performed for Christina Kyi, is a Burmese man, who was raised in America and returns to Myanmar to research on Burmese traditional music for his thesis. There he meets Hnin Thuzar (Hla Yin Kyae), a Burmese dancer who accompanies him through his travels of picturesque Bagan, Manadalay and Inle lake in Shan State. They inexplicably fall in love as Jaden tries to also discover his biological parents.

Inexplicably by the way, should be the middle name of this film, since there are many inexplicable events that occur in the film. In one instance, Hnin Thuzar becomes angry after learning Jaden was born in Myanmar but knows nothing about Myanmar and chastises him to learn about his roots. This despite the previous scenes just minutes ago show Hnin Thuzar teaching a relatively enthusiastic Jaden about Myanmar culture and showing him around. Many of the character's transitions are abrupt and without any dramatic intent. 

Text though cannot be analyzed so generically. It has to do with the sequence of events, and the choices of its characters within the story, and how those choices are rewarded or punished. However I find it maddening trying to figure out the text of the Mudras Calling since… the film itself is confused and trying to tell many different things, with characters choosing to act randomly, none of which is handled effective or inventively.

The aforementioned scene means to incite conflict but because many of the characters have so little motivation, it comes off as bizzare mood swings. I can guess that the romantic subplot means to create a will-they-won't-they trope but all I felt was whiplash since nothing motivates this romance. 

The storytelling is poor and I’m using the term storytelling quite loosely. I do not know what drives the film forward, what the themes are since I can’t actually find the central dramatic question of the film. It is incoherent with zero character development.

Jaden is the only person with a goal, but even that is squandered as he does very little in trying to achieve it aside from one scene of him wandering Myanmar with a photo of his parents. Other than that, he waits around for officials or doctors that they miraculously find to simply give overly long exposition.

Oddly however, it is also this aspect of incoherence that makes the film somehow engaging. I do commend the energy of unpredictability, since the essence of art is the unknown.

Mudras Calling kept me on my toes since I had no idea what would happen next. At first you think it’s a film about finding your roots with a front load of touristy porn shots of temples, landscapes and cultural practices, then it becomes a love story of a man who falls in love with a woman despite zero courtship or chemistry occurring unless you count two people staring at each other chemistry, then someone gets bitten by a snake? Which somehow leads you to what was half decent spiritual dream sequence before it whiplashed me to a scene of a viral epidemic with the production design having seen too much of zombie films as an inspiration.

If I’ve lost you here, you should be glad that I did it quickly in a paragraph rather than prolonging the confusion over a full length feature film. It was engaging with something different around every corner, but I desperately wished it wasn't.

The film is misguided in its progression and things do keep happening but its also maddeningly static, largely since the main characters don’t affect the plot at all. Jaden’s discovery of his true parentage conveniently happens to him rather than as a consequence of his choices or a change in his belief or ideals. The film’s over reliance on a simplified concept of the three-act structure is very evident since things do happen at certain periods of the film, but fails to mean anything.

It’s largely a failure of story. For most people this is the most important thing as mainstream films operate on the core idea of storytelling. Everything else is just shallow surface.  However, I unlike some, believe in the power of surface. In texture.

There are many films that operate for me on this level of purely the frame or the sounds. Texture deals with the realms of visual and audio design and can be hugely powerful. For Mudras Calling however, the texture is actually barely functioning and does nothing to help the story.

The camera moves are unmotivated. There genuinely seems a preoccupation with tracking left and right past foreground as wipes. Most lateral tracking shots have no emotional function even when used well, since it’s such a objective point of view, so it becomes a tool largely done for establishing space within the frame or as a transitional tool. The foreground wipes to another scene or in some cases to hide those transitions and cuts entirely to evoke the illusion of a continuous scene such as in Hitchcock’s Rope or Inarritu’s Birdman. However in this film, the camera tracks past for reasons unknown? 

Actually I can hazard a calculated guess and its probably because the scene itself, the text, is so glacially static that someone had the bright idea to telegraph that the scene is ending using these wipes. Or else we wouldn’t know.

The camera should always be doing visual storytelling but most of Mudras Calling shows little comprehension of any cinematic affectation. It would have been better probably had the production just stuck to having the camera on static tripods. It worked for decades by masterful directors and cinematographers and is a good discipline to have. If moving the camera does not change how you feel or the information you get, then perhaps you should take a cue from the past and just leave the camera well alone.

The same amount of carelessness affects the drone shots and sound design too, but they are not as blatantly egregious or can be considered an artistic failure. Technical failures yes, many times, but I sort of look kinder on that. Myanmar has a nascent film industry and it is to be expected, if not forgiven at times.

As for context, the film barely has anything to do with the outside world or with Myanmar in actuality. It’s mostly surface level and you can argue about the ideas of Western modernization against traditional Myanmar values, but I would argue it’s entirely incidental since the emphasis on this in the text is inconsequential. 

Is it personal then? Even with the knowledge that the director herself was raised in America shows some resemblance in the film but there’s just so much else burying it, that core value is drowned out by a lot of unimportant plot noise. And none of the details and characters feel real enough for me to think there is any noteworthy personal instances, moments or memories. It just makes a good director's statement but the evidence in the film is missing.

I wouldn’t even hold my breath for any mention of the military junta being involved in the flashbacks nor would I wait to hear about the Rohingya situation. For all intents and purposes this film could operate outside of Myanmar, thus making Myanmar a meaningless backdrop that is easily replaceable.

Mudras Calling is a shoddily put together film. It becomes occasionally engaging and I will credit it as such, but never for the right reasons. There is a energy from simply trying to put together many disparate elements but it does not come from a considered artistic stand point, but more the result of throwing everything and the kitchen sink, posturing to be maximally cool or following a set of storytelling structure and preconceived genre standards.  

Review by Rifyal Giffari

Mudras Calling is in Golden Village cinemas now.
Catch the trailer here.

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