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

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The Gangster’s Daughter (Shaowu the Bad)


There’s nothing like a quiet dad-daughter meal.

(2017) Drama (Wild Dog Productions) Jack Kao, Ally Chiu, Ko Yu Luen, Stephanie Lin, Wu Min, Huang Jih Ping, Kao Meng Chieh, Ma Ru Feng. Directed by Mei-Juin Chen

We all lament lost opportunities. When those rare occasions come along that give us second chances, the smart thing to do is to grab them with both hands. The thing about second chances though is that they aren’t always easy.

Keigo (Kao) is a gangster in Taipei. It’s a life that garners him success and respect but costs him his marriage; eventually his wife and daughter Shaowu move to remote Kinmen Island, a county I Taiwan that is geographically closer to mainland China than it is to Taipei. The two women move in with Keigo’s former mother-in-law who has nothing but contempt for her ex son-in-law.

Years later Shaowu is a hard-to-handle teen. Her mother has passed away unexpectedly, leaving her with her grandmother as sole adult guardian. She has a brief meeting with her dad at her mom’s funeral but returns to school where bullies pull a mean prank on her best friend. Shaowu reacts by dumping a pail of manure on the head of her tormentor. Unfortunately, the boy is politically connected and grandma is forced to reluctantly call in Keigo to handle the situation. Realizing she can’t handle her granddaughter who has been expelled from school, she entreats Keigo to take her to Taipei.

Keigo mainly runs a karaoke club where his girlfriend Coco is hostess. At first, Shaowu has a hard time adjusting but soon she makes friends at her school and Keigo’s crew takes a liking to her, particularly Coco who acts like a surrogate mom. He begins to allow himself to dream that he can have a normal life with Shaowu, opening up a restaurant with her someday.However the idyllic family in the making is disturbed by two events; the return of Keigo’s boss from an extended trip to Thailand with plans on extending his interests into narcotics, and a feud between some of Keigo’s younger gang and a corrupt cop. When a shoot-out leaves two of his closest friends dead, Keigo knows he has to act, even if it will leave Shaowu an orphan. Shaowu for her part has strongly identified with her dad and yearns to take up his criminal career, something her dad definitely does not want for her. Something has to give.

This Taiwanese film was a big hit at the box office in Taiwan but has struggled to find an audience outside of where it was made, a troubling trend in Asian movies as of late. The movie recalls some of the great gangster movies of Hong Kong of the 90s with a certain reverence for the criminal lifestyle which many in Asia equate with true freedom. We rarely see Keigo doing anything criminal other than getting into an occasional bar fight and he takes a definite stand on selling drugs which most true gangsters wouldn’t hesitate to do.

Kao, who has been called “the Asian Al Pacino” has an engaging smile and a brooding demeanor. He’s not above losing his temper with his men or his daughter for that matter. He’s made a lot of mistakes in his life and he wears every one of them on his face. Most of all, he doesn’t want his daughter to follow in his footsteps and dissuades her at every opportunity. There is a soft side to him that comes out unexpectedly at times but when he need to be hard, he’s like iron.

Chiu and Kao have a very realistic relationship and the two have a chemistry that would be enviable in almost any film. The heart of the movie is the bond between the two and the veteran Kao and the ingénue Chiu bring it to life. Chiu is an expressive actress with a face that shows an array of emotions even when she isn’t doing much physically. She has a truly bright future as an actress and I hope more of her films make it to the States.

This isn’t what I’d call action-packed even though the title contains the word “gangster” but it isn’t typical of that genre. There are a few scenes that are violent but by and large the criminals are just chatting amongst themselves or chilling in the karaoke bar. There is the shoot-out we spoke about and a reckoning late in the movie but mostly, this is about a slice of life more than it is about a slice of death.

The acting can be a bit stiff for American tastes particularly early on in the film and the movie might be a little longer than American audiences can tolerate in a movie that is paced this slowly but it is certainly worth the patience to check out. The characters are richly drawn and there is a sweetness at the core of the film that I liked very much. This is certainly a film to hunt down and check out.

The New York Asian Film Festival is a wonderful event that exposes the cinema of Asia to an appreciative audience; I only wish that more non-Big Apple residents could experience some of these films, few of which will make it to neighborhood art houses let alone VOD. Hopefully a few of them will get some wider exposure somewhere down the line; otherwise interested viewers will have to do some digging to find an online service that specializes in streaming Asian films like Fandor and AsianCrush that might carry some of these fine films down the line.

REASONS TO GO: Kao and Chiu have a remarkable chemistry. Chiu is certainly a star in the making
REASONS TO STAY: The acting is a bit stiff in places. The film is drawn out a bit too much.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity and some violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Mei-Juin Chen is best known for her documentaries; this is her first stab at a narrative feature.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/1/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mr. Six
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Look & See:A Portrait of Wendell Berry