Film Review: Money Has Four Legs (2020)

Screened at the 25th Busan International Film Festival 2020 and coming soon to the Locarno International Film Festival 2021, Money Has Four Legs spotlights the good, the bad, and the ugly of Burmese cinema. The debut film of director Maung Sun, Money Has Four Legs traces the myriad hardships encountered by a young film director as he tries to make a name in the film industry, resulting in a meta-film journey that is both hilarious and emotionally engaging.

Money Has Four Legs revolves around Wai Bhone, a young (fictional) film director, who is the son of an accomplished film director of a distant past. Wai struggles to complete his film as he is faced with a multitude of obstacles: strict censorship regulations imposed by the film producers, uncooperative cast members, and should his film fail to be successful, a looming state of poverty that threatens him and his family at every turn. Despite Wai’s earnest wishes for his work to stay true to the script — Wai even argues against the producer’s recommended changes, for the sake of artistic merit — the producer eventually forces Wai to change various scenes from his film.


Maung San’s method of social critique is glaring and blatant: through examining the life of a suffering artist who struggles to make a living out of their art, Maung not only highlights the authoritarian strains of the strict censorship regime that regulates the Burmese film industry, but also puts an uncensored spotlight on the pervasiveness of social inequality in contemporary Myanmar. The film’s socio-political significance is all the more accentuated when one realizes that the real-life producer of Money Has Four Legs had been detained by the Myanmar military since June this year, with limited official reasons being provided by the military.

The greatest strength of Money Has Four Legs is the eloquent style and pace of its character-driven narrative. There is a seamless flow between the different acts of the film, with Wai’s turmoils being compounded as the film’s runtime goes on. Yet, despite the dire backdrop of poverty that Wai faces, Maung still manages to tell a story of hardship in an entertaining — and sometimes even laughable — manner. For instance, in one of the funniest scenes of the movie, Wai’s camera is compromised as his brother-in-law accidentally breaks it. In this sequence, Wai attempts to improvise a point-of-view shot for a fight scene. Wai explicitly instructs the cast to hit the area around the camera instead of the camera itself. However, his brother-in-law — who is seen drinking on set — fails to heed to Wai’s instructions. In the following sequence, we see a point-of-view shot from Wai’s camera’s perspective — only for it to abruptly end with Wai’s brother-in-law smashing it. The lucid jump from the typical third-person to first-person perspective in this sequence demonstrates a simple, but effective creative use of camera work that Maung uses to showcase the shock and sheer ridiculousness of the obstacles that Wai faces on set. 

Another winning trait of Money Has Four Legs is its effectively crafted comical sensibilities. Money Has Four Legs has a style of comedy that is self-referential and witty. At various points, Money Has Four Legs makes various tongue-in-cheek references to the art of film-making itself, thus reflecting a post-modernist self-awareness of the film's own materiality. One of my favourite lines is when Wai’s brother-in-law references the cinematic principle of Chekhov's gun as he contemplates with a gun prop. This dialogue unfolds when Wai is convinced to stage a real robbery with his brother-in-law to secure enough finances for the camera repair. As Wai’s brother-in-law holds a gun prop, he remarks to Wai: “If you hang a gun on the wall in a film scene, you have to fire it later. Is that correct?” To which Wai dryly responds: “Life is not a movie and this gun is not real.” This moment epitomizes the rocky relationship between Wai and his brother-in-law, and also symbolically highlights the difference between life-on-screen and life-in-reality in Myanmar. This well-managed balance of irony, dead-pan humour, and gritty seriousness is consistent throughout the film. As such, the film’s sense of humour does not feel forced at all, and instead proves to be a refreshing take on a satirical comedy that deals with very real problems. Indeed, humour finds its way into the finale of Money Has Four Legs, with an ending that could not have been more perfect.

Nonetheless, my only qualm about Money Has Four Legs would be the moments whereby the film’s sense of verisimilitude is broken. There are two such prominent moments: the first occasion is when Wai Bhone is slapped in the face by his wife, and the second is when Wai Bhone punches his brother-in-law in the face for breaking his camera. I felt that both moments were rather awkwardly portrayed by the actors, and this broke the sense of immersion into the film. This took me, the viewer, out of the moment in the film. Perhaps this direction is what Maung intended — after all, it fits into the silly, sardonic style of humour that the film treads on. Nonetheless, these sequences seemed to compromise the weight of what was at stake in those sequences, especially since there was high tension that was building in both moments of the film.

All in all, credit must be given to Maung for delivering a compelling social commentary on Burmese cinema and society, all while injecting his own unique satirical style. Maung manages to effectively balance the dual sides of comedy and pathos to produce a wonder of a film that keeps viewers engaged throughout. Money Has Four Legs is a modern-day tragicomedy — one that manages to critique the Burmese political realities of today, all while maintaining a narrative that is full of surprises and endless wit.

Review by Bryson  Ng


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