Genres collide and friendships are amplified in this new tale that follows the violent road of migration by Taiwan-based filmmaker Midi Z
The Road to Mandalay is the fourth film by renowned director Midi Z, and tells the story of Lianqing (Wu Ke-xi) and Guo (Kai Ko), two illegal immigrants who travel from Burma to Thailand in search of a better life. While she drifts from one job to another, Lianqing’s aspirations to freedom never fade, but she is tested at every corner by her new and unfamiliar home as well as her relationship with Guo. Indeed, it appears that in her attempts to be free, Lianqing may well have just moved from one prison to another.
Interestingly for a film with a focus on political violence and the migrant experience, violence is very rarely given an explicit focus in the narrative. Instead, violence (both political and physical) is something more subtle that hangs in the air and looms on the periphery of the story, something that lurks behind the view of the camera but nevertheless pervades every moment of the film. This violence manifests in the form of legal boundaries, of dehumanisation through bureaucracy and of a callous disregard for human lives by larger political systems. Lianqing has aspirations and hopes for her life, but those hopes (in the form of legal documents) are held above her by an uncaring system that exploits and manipulates her dreams, and it is this violence that Midi Z puts a spotlight on in The Road to Mandalay.
The cinematography does an excellent job of very subtly representing this implicit but omnipresent violence – the camera work is very understated and avoids any overt cinematic flair or bluster, which invests the film with a degree of emotional intimacy and serves to establish a connection between the audience and Lianqing. This minimalism also makes the parts of the film that do employ cinematic techniques and effects like soundtracks and CGI have even more impact – when the film breaks from its documentary-style camerawork, it displaces the audience powerfully from the scene and lets you know that something is about to go down. There are a few of these moments in the film that I do not want to spoil, but my heart was in my throat when they happened.
Romance and violence go hand-in-hand in this uncertain and chaotic world, and love is played very interestingly in The Road to Mandalay. While the publicity around this movie make it seem like one built around romance, in practice the film almost works in direct opposition to the conventions of love stories. All the traditional story beats and (uncomfortable at best) narrative tropes are set out by Guo to establish a relationship between himself and Lianqing. But it becomes clear that Guo’s vision of Lianqing’s life does not match up with her own – genres collide and narrative threads compete between Guo’s unceasing (and increasingly desperate) attempts to win Lianqing over and the staking of her personal space.
Lianqing works against the power dynamics forced onto the cinematography and the story by Guo, and makes it clear that no matter what Guo thinks the film is about, she is the protagonist, and she decides the path of her own life. She is a very compelling protagonist, and I could not keep myself from doing very quiet fist-pumps in the theatre while she shot down every creepy romantic trope thrown her way.
However, the tropes are hungry, and the story must feed. And if a romance is not on the table, a tragedy certainly is.
Despite this, the film also puts a particular emphasis on friendship in opposition to romance – although this is a sad story, it is not a pessimistic or hopeless one. Lianqing’s ideals are celebrated in the film through the solidarity between her and her friends, united in their hopes and dreams against an uncaring and bureaucratic world.
Wu Ke-xi also does an amazing job at carrying the emotional core of the story through her performance, providing deep and sincere emotions that strike out against the dull greys of the cruel and callous world Lianqing has found herself in (I know I found myself going on a fair few “face journeys” with her).
Idealism is the central crux of the narrative, and it is pitted against numerous opponents as Lianqing interacts with the world. Throughout her journey, Lianqing’s dreams of freedom stand against pragmatism, against bureaucracy and against Guo’s own toxic form of idealism, with him shaping her into an idealised form of herself to fit the trajectory of his own story. While the story has a less than pleasant ending (don’t want to spoil it, but wow), the film is not devoid of positivity, and while the pursuit of freedom ends up being shackled to different forms of imprisonment, the seeds of hope are planted through the presentation of a convincing companionship.
The Road to Mandalay is a story of heartbreak and of hope, of great violence, but also of deep and powerful friendship. It is understated but confident in its presentation of deep and complex emotions, and expertly crafted from the camera work to the acting to the scripting, to paint a profound portrait of defiant optimism against a backdrop of callousness and selfishness. It displaces us from conventional depictions of violence to make us painfully aware of the implicit violence built into political systems both familiar and unfamiliar, and while it is a tragic story, it also offers ways in which we can overcome this systemic aggression together.
THE ROAD TO MANDALAY is released nationwide on 29 September 2017.
You can watch the film at:
London – Regent Street Cinema: 26 Sep 2017 + reception
Manchester – HOME: from 29 Sep 2017
Sheffield – Showroom: 29 Sep to 2 Oct 2017
Gloucester Guildhall: 27 Oct to 2 Nov 2017
Hereford – The Courtyard: 7 and 9 Nov 2017
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