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.
“Imagine that when going from Taipei to Taichung you need to pass a dozen checkpoints. For every checkpoint the guard looks at your ID card or permit and says ‘it’s not real. You bought it, didn’t you.’ You then give him money, and he let’s you pass,” Midi Z says of his experiences traveling through Burma.
Escorted to the airport by an agent who “took every opportunity to swindle money” out of him and fellow emigres, Midi Z left home and didn’t return for 10 years.
As in his 2009 short film The Man From Hometown (家鄉來的人), which starred the director’s childhood friend Wang Shin-hong (王興洪), young Burmese like Midi Z came to Taiwan under great pressure to pay off debts and send money home.
“I chose to study printing [in high school] because I figured since I was already familiar with photography, I could spend less time in school and more time working,” Midi Z says.
He soon took to filmmaking for the same pragmatic reason. Together with Wang, the young director made close to 20 short films while still in school, most of which were intended to win cash prizes.
“To us, making movies was never a dream, but a way to make a living,” he says.
Nevertheless, the pragmatist’s talent soon became apparent. Paloma Blanca, Midi Z’s graduation project in the Department of Industrial and Commercial Design at the National Taiwan University of Science and Technology (國立台灣科技大學) received acclaim and was invited to several international film festivals.
In 2009, the director was selected to become a member of the Golden Horse Film Academy, a project initiated by Hou Hsiao-hsien (侯孝賢) to train new talent. Midi Z made Huasin Incident (華新街記事), which tells the story of a group of Burmese youth living in Taipei caught between two equally tough choices: live in Taiwan as an illegal immigrant and be subjected to constant discrimination, or live a life of poverty in Burma.
Wanting to re-connect with his home country, Midi Z returned to Burma at the height of the 2010 democratic elections and made his debut feature, Return to Burma. A semi-autobiographical work about a returning Burmese emigrant, the film is said to be the first one shot in the sealed country to go international.
With a low-tech, documentary feel, Midi Z’s feature debut was made by a three-man crew, including the director himself, using a cheap digital camera.
“It requires years of studying the limited equipment you could lay your hands on,” the director says. “People from my hometown don’t rely on others. We use our labor to make things work.”
To make a movie in Burma also requires shooting without a permit as Midi Z’s films of contemporary Burmese society would never meet with official approval because authorities demand “permission for everything.”
“The authority doesn’t allow works that touch on real life. For example, you can’t shoot in a tea house because tea houses are dingy, and because people discuss politics there. There are simply too many problems in Burma that the government doesn’t want people to know about,” the director says.
Matter of life
The sense of verisimilitude in Midi Z’s work partially comes from a cast that mostly consists of non-professional actors who are friends and relatives. They don’t perform; they live life and are sometimes caught staring directly at the camera. It feels like they are real people telling us their real-life stories.
To the self-taught director, what sets him apart from professionally trained filmmakers is his wealth of life experiences.
“It is difficult for many people to find topics to make a film about. For me, it’s easy. One night of my life can make a good story. I have seen it, lived through it and know how to make a movie out of it,” Midi Z says.
Inspired by the real life stories of his friends, the director’s second feature, Poor Folk, takes a hard look at the drug trade and human trafficking. It was partially shot in northern Thailand’s remote border town of Dagudi, which is populated by Chinese refugees and illegal immigrants. An independent army controls the Burmese side.
The everyday predicament faced by locals became menacingly apparent when, during a day of shooting in the jungle, Wang suddenly disappeared into the booby-trapped jungle along the border. Afraid that he might be shot on sight by soldiers on the other side, the crew frantically searched for their missing lead actor. Fortunately, Wang re-appeared 20 minutes later, thorns all over his body but none the worse for wear.
The director speaks of the making of Return to Burma and Poor Folk as a learning process and says he has yet to become a “real director.” His future projects include Lian Qing, a Burmese Girl (蓮青), a love story that will be very different from his first two docu-dramas.
“Cinema is all about doing. No matter what happens in the world, as long as we live, you will see the projects I have talked about made into films. It has nothing to do with money. You can make it for NT$100,000 or NT$10,000,” Midi Z says. “It is more like a revolution: intense, passionate and somewhat irrational. It has to break rules, challenge and make things happen.”
Return to Burma and Poor Folk are currently playing at SPOT — Taipei Film House (台北光點), 18, Zhongshan N Rd Sec 2, Taipei City (台北市中山北路二段18號), and run until May 17.