With immigration currently dominating world politics it is hard to watch The Road to Mandalay, a film that starts with an illegal border crossing from Burma to Thailand, without thinking it inherently political. As pragmatist Lianqing (Wu Ke-xi) is punted across a river, packed into a van and deposited on the streets of Bangkok without issue or complaint, migration has never seemed more manageable or mundane. It’s certainly a far cry from the sensational and desensitising newsreel footage of the European migrant crisis or human trafficking busts, with reports of people drowning off the Greek coast or being left for dead in the back of a lorry. It would be wrong, however, to overestimate Lianqing’s chances of success or underestimate the risks that still face her.
The real struggle, as is so often the case, has less to do with infiltrating a country than it does integrating oneself into a community. Deprived of the rights and security that come with citizenship, migrants find themselves routinely exposed and isolated, susceptible to abuse. As unperturbed as Lianqing might seem, even turning down an offer of gainful employment when propositioned by fellow migrant Guo (Kai Ko), director Midi Z refuses to allow this confidence to extend to his audience. He fosters a sense of unease throughout, through lingering, almost voyeuristic scenes and an edgy, restless score, creating an increasingly ominous and oppressive atmosphere seemingly at odds with the straightforward events transpiring onscreen. By the time Lianqing eventually joins Guo at his uncle’s textiles factory disaster seems long overdue.
The performances are understated but not to be underestimated, as both Wu and Kai bring an uncanny air to their characteristation that leaves you questioning their characters’ every move. Kai is perhaps the more charismatic of the two, but both Lianqing and Guo are compelling in their own ways. The latter comes to our heroine’s aid on a number of occasions, selflessly taking her place in the van’s trunk on their journey to Bangkok and posting bail when she winds up on the wrong side of the law, but his eagerness to please soon takes on a more sinister edge. He’s presumptuous and protective, pronouncing Lainqing to be his girlfriend and proposing marriage apparently oblivious to her obvious reluctance. She wants to acquire a passport and persevere, whereas he envisions a completely different future for them both, a compromise, together and settled.
All of this human drama unfolds against the fantastical splendorous of Thailand, and there are a number of scenes set in the countryside, both at the film’s outset and when the couple later pursue fake identity cards, in which the scenery looks almost painterly; Tom Fan’s spellbinding cinematography lending the locations a magical unreality, whether it’s the miraculous mountains or nightmarish mill. Despite its often uncompromising commitment to realism, this sense of the abstract runs through The Road to Mandalay, never clearer or more discordant than in a strange scene with a monitor lizard; to call it a thriller or even a drama would be to overstate things, as Z tends to pique his audience’s interest rather than grip their attention. The character’s disaffection even begins rubs off, to the point that the film’s ending — though credible and in character — seems abrupt and emphatic next to what has come before.
That may well be the point, however, as the film explicitly depicts vulnerable people being ignored or neglected by those numb to their plight, leaving them to be exploited and endangered by opportunists and officials alike. The shocking finale might go unnoticed by the authorities, but it will surely resonate with an audience made somewhat complicit in their crime. You will leave The Road to Mandalay feeling guilty and remorseful for not paying closer attention, wondering what you might have missed – aghast at the fiction and awake to the reality.