It was a summer night in 1998. Midi Z (趙德胤) had just arrived at the Taoyuan International Airport from Myanmar, not knowing anyone in Taiwan and with only US$200 in his pocket. He relied on the kindness of strangers to get to the school he was going to attend in Taichung. By day, Midi Z worked manual jobs to earn his tuition. At night, he’d sneak into the school’s dormitory to sleep, even though it was closed over the summer holidays.
Today, the 31-year-old Midi Z is a rising filmmaker, with his first two feature films, Return to Burma (歸來的人) and Poor Folk (窮人。榴槤。麻藥。偷渡客), earning acclaim at international film festivals in Busan, Hong Kong, Rotterdam and Vancouver. The films, written, directed, produced, edited and cinematographed by the auteur, offer poignant insights into the once-isolated country that continues to be ruled by a military junta.
In Midi Z’s gritty realistic cinema, people live in shacks without electricity, struggle to make ends meet with odd jobs, smuggle goods and traffic drugs. Youngsters drift, grasping at any opportunity to leave the country in search of a better life. For the director, what is portrayed are not merely stories but realities that form his life and those of his friends and family members, most of who continue to live in Burma’s ethnic Chinese villages.
Born and raised in the town of Lashio, Midi Z is the descedant of Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) soldiers, who fled to Burma and Thailand in the 1950s following their defeat in the Chinese Civil War. He describes his family as the poorest in the impoverished ethnic Chinese community. His father was a self-taught doctor, and his mother sold street food to make a meager wage — enough, Midi Z says, to buy “a bag of rice and nothing else.”
Midi Z did well in school, but it didn’t change the fact that others looked down on him because of his family’s poverty.
“In Burma, people only have admiration for rich kids. For example, when courting a girl, you needed to buy treats for all her friends. Poor guys like me would never dare to woo girls because we felt inferior,” the director says.
Like his friends, the young Midi Z idled away his time with the usual teenage shenanigans: getting stabbed, going to prison for hunting with a shotgun and driving a car into a house while under the influence of drugs. But good things also happened amid the despair. The director says that his path to filmmaking began at a photo studio run by a gangster who once killed a man on the Chinese border.
“He took us into his studio … We snapped photographs, and I spent a lot of time in the darkroom,” he recalls.
The fate of the young man changed when he earned a chance to further his education in Taiwan.
Land of promise
“I didn’t know what awaited me in Taiwan. I only knew that our neighbors’ children went there and sent money back to build houses. For us poor Burmese-Chinese, Taiwan is a place where we can change our destiny,” Midi Z says.
The promising future, however, came with a hefty price — a NT$70,000 loan to be exact — enough to buy “a piece of land” in Burma. As with many of the characters in his films, Midi Z borrowed a large sum of money to obtain a passport, which is almost impossible to get due to pervasive corruption and the government’s control of its citizens. The unique status of Burma’s ethnic Chinese makes them more vulnerable to exploitation, Midi Z explains, as strict immigration laws stipulate that only those who can prove that their family has lived in the country for three generations are entitled to an ID card. Consequently, many ethnic Chinese only have temporary resident permits.