The Road to Mandalay is a film that reminds us of the project of life; what it is to build one, what the necessary elements are. It documents the struggle to pick up and hold these pieces of a life as two illegal Burmese immigrants attempt to enter Thailand. They have education, ideas, aspirations – but all of this is suppressed by their illicit status and lack of legal papers. Their lives are in the hands of others. Fat, corrupted hands. In particular, the idea of innocence is explored: innocence as naivety, innocence as purity, innocence as value, innocence as faith, innocence as a devastating ideal.
In particular, the idea of innocence is explored: innocence as naivety, innocence as purity, innocence as value, innocence as faith, innocence as a devastating ideal.
Films that express ideas about inhumanity run a risk of being moralistic, but not here. The Road to Mandalay uses beauty as its tool-kit. It is unapologetic propaganda for the underdog: the immigrant, the cog, the hopeless. A certain sort of grace is achieved by Tom Fan’s camera work; he has a simple vision, but a clever, sensitive one. Symbols become important, not trite. Though under the ostensible supervision of director Midi Z, what makes the story register is Fan’s obsession with the human face. Dialogue is communicated to the English-speaking audience via subtitles, but it is through image that we access character. Fan, in the best sense, seems more of a photographer than a motion picture-maker. He is a framer, and a colourist. The story is not a happy one, and the protagonists’ faces become canvasses where this is expressed.
Ke-Xi Wu, in the leading female role, is a study of tension. She is fragile but strong. Determined and clear, but vulnerable as a single woman in a patriarchal society. We witness her gradual transition to an independence of mind, though see it compromised by her partner, Kai-Ko. Neither character is straightforward. They are strange mixtures of kindness, folly, and brutality. But we learn that human motives are simple; they direct the course of action and the course of one’s life. The title of the film is borrowed from Rudyard Kipling’s 1890 eponymous love poem, an apt reference as both works tell the story of men and women braced against a still-standing societal fallacy: one of female dependency. The film, however, makes for a blood-red counter narrative.
The Road to Mandalay is told at a pace that frustrates, with a run-time of close to two hours. It is not slow, exactly – and yet takes a long time to go anywhere. But as a document of frustration, this is perfect. Beyond an electric study of character, larger themes, some treated in a very different way to what is familiar in liberal Western society, surface. In particular, the idea of innocence is explored: innocence as naivety, innocence as purity, innocence as value, innocence as faith, innocence as a devastating ideal.