In a cinematic era of computer-generated imagery and digital rendering, Midi Z’s films (趙德胤) feel like they are from another era. Framed in long takes, underemployed young men hang around and compare their meager salaries, or prate about their planned escapes to neighboring countries. Families eat meals by candlelight in shacks without electricity, and a woman perpetually awaits a promised fake ID card in a border village populated by refugees.
Midi Z’s gritty cinema offers poignant insights into Myanmar, a once-isolated country that continues to be ruled by a military junta. The 31-year-old director is an ethnic Chinese born and raised in Myanmar, who recently became a Taiwanese citizen. After years of exile in Taiwan, Midi Z returned to Myanmar at the height of its 2010 democratic elections to make his feature debut Return to Burma (歸來的人). The next year, he followed it up with Poor Folk (窮人。榴槤。麻藥。偷渡客).
These two feature films have garnered acclaim on the international film circuit for their unique portrayal of realities that had been largely unknown to the rest of the world.
Diaspora and displacement are the recurrent themes in Midi Z’s works. The semi-autobiographical Return to Burma focuses on a young Burmese man called Xing-hong, who is played by the director’s childhood neighbor Wang Shin-hong (王興洪).
The Burmese Xing-hong returns home after a decade of working in Taipei, carrying with him the ashes of a fellow villager who fell to his death on the construction site where they had worked together. Through Midi Z’s sober lens, life in Myanmar is stagnant and impoverished. Money is the most talked-about topic among the deprived villagers as Xing-hong looks for job opportunities. Meanwhile, despite the country’s first democratic elections, youngsters including Xing-hong’s little brother continue to leave in search of a better life.
The sense of uprooting and alienation is heightened in Poor Folk, a story of Chinese Burmese emigrants and refugees in Thailand. After arriving in Bangkok, A-hong (Wang) is taken in by his countryman and small-time hustler A-fu — played by the director’s older brother Zhao De-fu (趙德富) — whose legitimate job is to run bus tours of Chinese visitors through Thailand. Desperately needing money to buy back his sister who was sold to traffickers, A-hong follows his compatriot to northern Thailand’s remote border town of Dagudi, where Burmese go to seek fortunes in drug and human trafficking. The plot is leavened by some deadpan humor, as the bumbling duo tries to sell the raw material from which amphetamine is made to the kingpins who rule the village.
Later, the partners-in-crime cross paths with Sun-mei — played by Taiwan’s stage actress Wu Ke-xi (吳可熙) — a young Chinese-Burmese woman who works at a Bangkok brothel and smuggles young girls from Myamar to Thailand in her spare time. Sun-mei arrives in Dagudi to pick up a girl, who turns out to be A-hong’s teenaged sister.
Shot by a small crew with a consumer-grade digital camera, Midi Z’s works have a limited range and a raw feel. Though the production quality is merely passable, this honest way of filmmaking suits its subjects well and tenderly draws attention to the details of life in rural Myanmar, where villagers talk at length about their livelihoods and how much it costs to buy the passports of different countries. Political turmoil and social upheaval that make headlines in the capital are revealed only through the upbeat pop songs about democracy that Midi Z’s character hears as he travels across the country to reach home. The cast, mostly non-professionals who are the director’s friends and family, also helps the films to retain a sense of verisimilitude.
Yet Midi Z shows that he is not a filmmaker tied to the doctrine of realism. Toward the end of Poor Folk, Sun-mei and her friend pass a crashed aircraft on a vast, empty plain in the border village. In the otherwise hyper-realistic film, the digitally rendered plane is a curious commentary on the act of crossing borders. It’s this just-right blend of vision and cinematic sensibilities that make Midi Z a promising talent and a name to watch closely.
Return to Burma and Poor Folk are 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) until May 17. Both films have subtitles in Chinese and English.