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

Mama


So put another dime in the jukebox baby.

So put another dime in the jukebox baby.

(2013) Supernatural Horror (Universal) Jessica Chastain, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Megan Charpentier, Isabelle Nelisse, Daniel Kash, Javier Botet, Jane Moffat, Morgan McGarry, David Fox, Dominic Cuzzocrea, Christopher Marren, Ray Kahnert, Hannah Cheesman, Julia Chantrey. Directed by Andres Muschietti

The bond between a mother and her child is something that simply can’t be broken. It is stronger than diamonds and carries its own gravitational pull that makes a black hole look like a refrigerator magnet. That bond is there for life – and some say, beyond.

This story starts with murder, of a man who loses it and kills his estranged wife and ex-partner and kidnaps his two children. He takes them, not quite intentionally, to a dilapidated cabin in the remote woods of Virginia called oddly enough Helvetia (with Mad Men-era retro furniture) where he intends to shoot them, and then himself. However fate – in the guise of a malevolent presence – intervenes.

Five years later, the two girls are still missing and their Uncle Lucas (Coster-Waldau) is still looking for them although his funds are running low – he’s been utilizing the inheritance from his successful brother. Lucas apparently “draws things” although it’s never really established whether he draws paintings or cartoons or whatnot. Anyway his girlfriend Annabel (Chastain), a rocker chick who plays bass in a punk-edged indie rock band, is a little put off by her boyfriend’s obsession especially since she can’t get pregnant herself.

However quite accidentally Burnsie (Fox), the tracker that Lucas has hired for the task, stumbles on the cabin and finds the girls – Victoria (Charpentier), now eight and her sister Lilly (Nelisse) who is six. The two girls are nearly feral although Victoria seems to be recovering her ability to speak. Lilly, in particular, is nearly mute, moving in an eerie spider-like motion.

It’s nothing short of a miracle that two such young children could survive in an isolated cabin on their own for so long but nobody seems to be questioning that. In fact, their psychiatrist Dr. Dreyfus (Kash) thinks that in a stable home environment that the girls might achieve some normalcy. While Lucas’ Aunt Jean (Moffat) is anxious to get custody, Lucas is actually much closer to the girls and with some help from Dr. Dreyfus gets the judge (Kahnert) to agree once the University arranges for a nice suburban home for Lucas and Annabel to move into.

But things aren’t all My Little Pony in suburban Virginia. The girls are both extremely traumatized and look at Lucas and particularly Annabel with some wariness. They refer to an invisible entity they call Mama who looks after her – and apparently she’s dropped by the ‘burbs to keep an eye on her girls. And after Lucas is removed from the picture, it is up to Annabel – who neither wants the job nor thinks herself able to do it – to take care of two very difficult children.

But a funny thing happens on the way to the horror film. Annabel begins to bond with the two girls (in particular with Victoria) and this Mama doesn’t like at all, not in the slightest. Dr. Dreyfus isn’t much of a help – he has his own agenda which isn’t necessarily in the best interests of the girls. And Mama isn’t recognizing any agenda but her own which isn’t good news for Annabel or  the girls.

This is based on a short previously directed by Muschietti and was produced by fan favorite and all-around good guy Guillermo del Toro. Spanish horror tends to be really atmospheric and Muschietti has a flair for it, making the cabin look anachronistic and genuinely creepy. Everything from the movement of the actors which isn’t quite natural to the suburban setting which is deceptively ordinary contributes to the overall vibe that things aren’t right a’tall.

Enjoy Chastain in this role folks, because you won’t see her in this kind of movie ever again – or at least it’s very unlikely you will. Right now if I had to name the best actress working in Hollywood right now, today, this moment, it would be Jessica Chastain. She has that chameleon-like quality that Meryl Streep possesses that allows her to take on virtually any kind of role and not just make it hers but make it unique as well. Here she’s channeling her inner Joan Jett and gives Annabel a gamine like quality that is endearing with the immature feel of a teenage boy who hasn’t quite grown up yet. Annabel grows up a great deal during the course of the movie and Chastain makes those changes organic. You don’t often go to see a horror movie for the acting performances but this is one of those exceptions where you should.

Coster-Waldau, so excellent as Jamie Lannister in Game of Thrones on HBO is solid here, reminding me a little bit of Viggo Mortensen. He plays the dual role of Luke and his doomed brother and wisely lets Chastain take center stage. He’s a terrific actor in his own right and has all sorts of leading man potential. In addition, the two young juvenile actresses do extremely well – Charpentier as the emotional center reaching for the mundane and Nelisse as Lilly who has one foot in the spirit world wherein Mama dwells.

Mama’s backstory is nothing to write home about and when she is revealed she isn’t all that impressive but when she moves through the floor or ceiling it’s chillingly effective. Mama needs to elicit a certain amount of sympathy from the audience but in this case she doesn’t really inspire enough which is a hard feat I know but it would have made the movie exponentially more effective. As it is given Chastain’s performance this is a horror movie mainstream audiences should go see.

REASONS TO GO: Creepy in all the right places. Jessica Chastain is the best actress in Hollywood right now period. Nice ghostly effects.

REASONS TO STAY: Story a little bit convoluted. Final look of Mama is a bit of a letdown.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are some pretty scary images some of which are pretty disturbing, some thematic issues and a few nasty scares.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Originally scheduled for a Halloween 2012 release, the movie got bumped up to January which proved to be a smart move as it recouped its entire production and marketing cost in its opening weekend, debuting at number one at the box office.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/9/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 63% positive reviews. Metacritic: 58/100. Although the reviews are somewhat mixed, there are more positive than negative.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Woman in Black

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: The Sorcerer and the White Snake