The Road to Mandalay


Oh, what a tangled web we weave.

(2016) Drama (Fine Time) Kai Ko, Ke-Xi Wu. Directed by Midi Z

Illegal immigration is at an epidemic all over the world. Repressive regimes, civil wars, genocides and economic hardships are forcing thousands and millions of people to leave their homes to seek a better life elsewhere. The citizens of Myanmar which most of us know as Burma and whose land has been torn by civil war as well as suffering under a particularly brutal military junta ruling their nation with an iron fist, are among those looking for a way out of their troubled land.

Lianquing (Wu) is among those streaming out into neighboring Thailand. She is rowed down a river to a meeting with smugglers who are to drive them over the border. Although she only has the cash to pay for passage in the trunk, a young man from her village – Guo (Ko) – gallantly changes places with her, giving her the expensive and much coveted passenger seat.

While it is obvious that Guo has a big-time crush on her, it is also just as obvious that their life goals are very different. Lianquing wants to get a Thai passport (by hook or by crook) and eventually move to Taiwan where there is opportunity to make something of herself whereas Guo has no ambition other than to one day return to Burma with enough cash to open up a stall where he can sell imported clothes at cut-rate prices.

Conditions are hard and without proper documents it is nearly impossible to find good jobs. There is enormous corruption and the undocumented workers work in unsafe and unsanitary conditions, working brutal hours and having to pay “fees” to their employers and immigration officials in order to do it. Lianquing gets arrested in an immigration raid and is bailed out by Guo. By this time her cousin Hua, dispirited after losing her own job due to a lack of proper documents, throws Lianquing out after telling her to expect the same. Although Guo offers his sister’s house rent-free, the fiercely independent Lianquing prefers to live in a dormitory with other undocumented workers.

She gets work in the same factory that Guo works in and their romance slowly begins to take hold, although things are often rocky between them. Guo for one thing thinks her attempts to get proper documentation are a waste of time and money, and he is there time after time to pick up the pieces when her hopes and dreams are shattered when she pays some pretty hefty sums for papers that are useless to her cause. Desperate, she makes a choice that will change both their lives forever.

The plight of immigrants leaving Burma is a favorite subject of director Midi Z and this may well be the most focused and powerful of his four films to date. Certainly he gets some extremely strong performances from both his leads; I was most impressed by the efforts of Wu who is often stone-faced, using her body language to convey her emotional state and to say things she can’t say out loud. Ko has terrific chemistry with her, both awkward and tender as he tries to win her and is increasingly frustrated by her refusal to go further into a relationship than he would like.

One of the things that I found that worked real well here is that the images are often bright and sunny, and the tone almost cheerful despite the plight of Lianquing and Guo which makes for visual irony. Beautiful place, terrible circumstances and of course the two make for a meaningful juxtaposition.

The drawback here is that the movie is paced as if it has nowhere particular to go. There are plenty of shots of Lianquing staring into the darkness; I suppose that is meant to portray her state of mind but as I said earlier she doesn’t utilize a whole lot of facial expression here. These shots as time goes on get less and less useful and more and more unnecessary.

Mostly we seem to be more concerned with Syrian refugees and Central American refugees; we tend to forget that there are people fleeing oppression all over the glove. The brutal existence of undocumented workers is nothing to celebrate, but if it wasn’t better than the lives these illegal immigrants were fleeing than they’d probably stay put. Definitely this is an important film that calls clarion to up and coming talents in the forms of Ko, Wu and Midi Z.

REASONS TO GO: The filmmakers try to portray a realistic depiction of the plight of illegal immigrants in Asia. Wu acts mainly through body language rather than facial expression – effectively so. The cinematography utilizes a lot of natural light, giving a chillingly cheerful tone to a movie that is downbeat.
REASONS TO STAY: The pacing is way too slow – there are far too many shots of Lianquing staring at nothing in the darkness.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some brief but disturbing images as well as adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Midi Z was born in Burma (also known as Myanmar) but he left the repressive regime there to attend art school in Taiwan where he currently resides.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/26/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: English as a Second Language
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: The Truth Beneath

No One Knows About Persian Cats


No One Knows About Persian Cats

Even in Iran, rockers know how to pose.

(2009) Drama (IFC) Negar Shaghaghi, Ashkan Koshanejad, Hamed Behdad, Hichkas, Hamed Seyyed Javadi. Directed by Bahman Ghobadi

What if you lived in a place where expressing your deepest feelings could get you arrested? Where making the kind of music you loved was illegal? Sadly, there are a lot of places like that.

Iran is one such place. Negar (Shaghaghi) and Ashkan (Koshanejad) are a pair of alternative-type musicians who have just been released from and Iranian jail. Their crime? Performing forbidden music – without a permit. Hardened criminals, these two are.

They have gotten an invitation to play in London and they mean to take it but first they have to put together a full band. And they have to get a permit to leave the country, for which they require the services of a manager, who they find in Nader (Behdad). Nader links them up with a couple of shady businessman who will forge the papers they need.

However, Negar and particularly Ashkan are dead set on performing a final concert in Teheran before they go. That is going to produce some problems of its own – the police in Teheran aren’t particularly forgiving of young people expressing themselves, particularly in a proscribed manner.

Iran is a heavily regulated country with an extremely radical and conservative clergy calling the shots. Even house pets must remain behind closed doors (which is where the title comes from). Women, of course, are second class citizens, forbidden from studying, holding certain kinds of jobs and even of showing their face in public.

That kind of repression is bound to provoke some pushback, and a thriving independent rock scene has flourished in Teheran and other Iranian cities – there are supposedly more than 2,000 bands operating in Iran currently that play music that is against the law.

That the story takes such conditions so matter-of-factly is part of what makes the movie interesting. While they all hope for more freedom, it’s the world they all live in and they just try to get by the best way that they can. That part of the movie is fascinating. There is also a certain amount of charm, particularly in the music community which is extremely tight knit, crossing genre lines (which would never happen in the States or at least to the degree depicted here) in a kind of gallows cameraderie that would have to develop in a situation such as theirs.

What is even more thrilling is that the music in the movie is uniformly good. The band that the lead characters create (and by the way, the screenplay is based on the experiences of Negar and Ashkan, who are actual musicians) makes music that wouldn’t sound out of place in the hippest clubs in San Francisco, Austin or Seattle. The other bands play a variety of styles from rap metal to acoustic anti-folk to grunge, but all of it is uniformly good. For some of them, the film is going to be the only record of their creativity available to them, because recording music is prohibitively difficult in Iran.

With most of the actors being amateurs (Behdad is a notable exception and he is one of the bright spots in the movie), the acting can be a bit on the unrefined side. That does give the movie a greater sense of realism; it’s not quite a documentary in that sense but it’s as close as you come without capturing actual events.

There are some stark images in the film that are balanced out by a gentle sense of humor that shows up in unexpected places. I have to admit, I was captured by the movie’s charm and you can ride that an awfully long way. It doesn’t quite rocket the movie into instant classic territory but it is certainly worth checking out as an alternative to what you usually watch.

WHY RENT THIS: A look into a culture that has received almost no coverage in Western media and none at all in their own homeland. Great music and some gentle humor round out a nice film.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The acting is a little bit on the raw side and the production values are a little dicey.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a little bit of language and some smoking.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Most of the bands seen in the movie are actual bands (or were) operating on the Iranian underground scene.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $879,937 on an unreported production budget; my guess is that the movie made a little money.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

TOMORROW: Rango