There are filmmakers like John Cassavetes and Ingmar Bergman, to whom the human face is a canvas for great art, and then there is Midi Z, who turns his characters’ backs to the camera. His new film swiftly establishes its tone of pure and unwavering dread within the opening four minutes, during which two people, Lianqing (Wu Ke-xi) and Guo (Kai Ko), ferry a rubber tube across an opaque river to the opposite shore. The camera watches the vessel with the slow rotation of a standing fan, keeping the tube steadily centred and its occupants at arm’s length. The pair moor, and are promptly hauled into a van full of fellow migrants from rural Myanmar scrambling for work, shelter and a summarily better life across the Thai border. The group shuttle through checkpoints in sacrosanct silence, press bribe money into officials’ supine palms, and, while stowed in the back of utes, quiver along the journey’s rough roads like unfastened cargo.
Their destination is Bangkok, and in a movie less gloomy, the promised land would come good on its word; the love that blossoms between Lianqing and Guo might feel less doomed, the misfortunes disrupting her shot at comfortable existence less insistent. Lianqing recycles her flatmates’ formal wear for corporate interviews, but her lack of legal paperwork inhibits legitimate employment, so she accepts a low-paying job as a kitchen-hand. Guo, who tends to lumber into sight bearing wads of cash just as the going gets too tough, entices her to work at the shady, cavernous textile factory that employs him, but the conditions only narrowly improve. Their friends and colleagues divulge bad news with a despondence that makes Lianqing’s tyrannical employers look loquacious; in The Road to Mandalay, people rarely speak if not to forecast more adversity.
If this sounds like it’s burdened by portent and worth, it helps that hardship is the movie’s wallpaper. Midi Z takes an approach akin to BAPFF 2014’s slow cinema entry Lake August: the lethargic pacing, the religious stillness of the camerawork and the sparse conversations bolster, rather than force, the stultifying atmosphere in which the characters find themselves. (In the factory scenes, Z’s eye for subordinating the human body to industrial apparatus thrives.) These people don’t live so much as they eat, sleep, work, and survive.
Midi Z, himself a Myanmar expatriate who grew up among the country’s working poor, makes films about illegal border-crossing, drug trades and displacement that are drawn from personal experience. After moving to Taiwan, the director was mentored by the great Hou Hsiao-Hsien, and The Road to Mandalay has traces of that master’s visual flair, in parts suggestive of a movie with much broader range than the whole ultimately shows. Take the shot in which Lianqing and Guo stand between webs of splayed cotton that dissect the screen like starbursts of dim, refracted light, which has a depth-of-field straight from The Assassin, and few other points of comparison in Mandalay. Although the film is often too psychologically thin to match Tsai Ming-Liang’s skill for plumbing great depths of melancholy, Midi Z’s penchant for stationary camerawork and dead space also calls his Taiwanese countryman to mind.
Except that Midi Z seems relatively unconcerned with how his characters think and feel, so they continue to eat, sleep, work, survive, and little else. The film’s structure is alternately hypnotic and downright slow, its director’s tactic obvious if not familiar: these aren’t homes but houses, not beds but highly coveted floor-space, not employees but cogs in a well-oiled outpost of neoliberal economics. Then, Midi Z stops shooting sterile images and starts making cinema. The change of tack is brief, swift and serpentine, and it lends his meandering story a fabulistic quality that lays bare things it had only previously suggested. A wild and welcome diversion from the expected, the film’s final stretch gives its characters (and its audience) something they never foresaw: an end.