Recently, Myanmar has been in the news due to its ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya Muslims (although the current leaders vehemently deny these allegations.) The persecution of its minority groups has caused a large number of them to flee to neighbouring countries in order to escape persecution and make a better life for themselves and their families. It is this aspect that Director Midi Z takes a look at in his latest film Road to Mandalay.
The film follows Liangqing and Guo as they illegally cross into Thailand from Myanmar after turning to human traffickers for help. Once the two arrive Liangqing finds herself drifting from low paid job to low paid job in an attempt to gain an identity card and start working legally in the country whilst Guo intends to continue working illegally because he doesn’t see any point in obtaining citizenship. Gradually, the two characters become closer, before their differences in wanting to find work drive a wedge between their relationship.
Initially, the film is fantastic in how the introduction creates a palpable sense of tension, as the group of immigrants sail down the river before being loaded into a car and driven through several checkpoints. The emotional strain is heightened by plenty of long, lingering shots that leave a distinct sense of discomfort. The events are played out in direct contrast to the scenery that accompanies some of these shots, showing beautifully picturesque backdrops of the countryside of Thailand, all accompanied by hauntingly atmospheric music that creates a soundscape which adds to the entire affair.
Unfortunately, despite the prolonged shots work wonders for certain scenes, they often get used for other moments as well. Although the shots work wonders for adding dramatic depth, the use of them during a more jovial sequence feels incredibly awkward as the actors all gesture to the camera far longer than necessary. It is this along with the regular need to explain certain events which have happened off screen (Liangqing is thrown out of her cousin’s flat, which we only discover when Guo is explaining this to his sister) that starts to take you out of the story.
The story itself could very easily work, were it not for the fact that the plot appears to move at a glacially slow pace whilst randomly jumping forwards in time, along with regular interruptions to the flow of the film as certain events off screen are explained, as when Guo explains to his sister that Liangqing has been thrown out of her cousin’s flat. The overall effect of this creates a very loosely connected narrative which will oftentimes leave you scratching your head.
A common aspect of films that follow refugees and illegal immigrants is highlighting the poor working conditions and squalid living spaces, as well as the more seedy side of human trafficking. Road to Mandalay portrays a different (but still very similar) view. The depictions of several jobs that Liangqing works at show a hard, but relatively fair atmosphere, with plenty of people who provide help (for a price.) Yet it is when Liangqing decides to prostitute herself (the film never explicitly states this, but it is implied through the dialogue) that things take a turn for the bizarre, with her being left in a room with a Komodo Dragon. It is a scene which can easily be read asa metaphor, but it feels wildly out of place within the rest of the film.
Road to Mandalay evidently aspires to be something much greater than it is. Whilst it highlights the plight of the fleeing refugees, it also feels as if it is pulling its punches somewhat and leaving out some of the more horrifying moments. It’s worth a watch, but don’t get your hopes up.
The Road to Mandalay is out 29th September!