Movie Review: “The Road to Mandalay” ends in Bangkok for these Burmese immigrants

They meet in a minor act of gallantry. Both are to pile into a pickup truck that will smuggle them deep into Thailand. One will ride in front, others have to hide, lying flat, in the false bed in the truck’s back to avoid detection.

Even though Guo has paid the higher priced fare to the mule, he will swap places with Lianqing.

At the end of their harrowing journey of checkpoints and bribes, he urges her to take a ride into Bangkok with his sister. She declines, but accepts his phone number and his gallantry, and gives him hers.

After all, they’re both from the same city in Myanmar. They’ve shared an ordeal together. Little do they realize that they’ve just finished the easy part.

“The Road to Mandalay” is a quietly understated and cautionary migration drama, two people cross a border on their way to better lives. Lianqing (stoically played by Ke-Xi Wu) hopes to make it to Taiwan. But she has a support system in Thailand. Maybe things will work out well enough here, as she tries to work and raise the money to move on. Things don’t.

This Taiwanese/Thai co-production carefully observes a working underworld in a country where fake work permits are expensive to come by, and useless — and real ones impossible to get. Those in the know — Chinese expat business folk and locals — have mastered the way to get by — bribery.

A checkpoint inspection of the mule’s pickup? Fixed with a bribe. A police raid/roundup of all of Lianqing’s friends and relatives, sharing an apartment? Fixed with another.

She is 23, innocent to the point of naive. Helpful colleagues and roommates guide her, but a couple of acquaintances embittered and frustrated by the barriers to getting by here are just as instructive.

Sure, learn the language, ride the bus, hit the markets, take any job that will hire you (most won’t).

“But don’t wear a (Burmese) sarong,” in Burmese with English subtitles). “It’s a dead give-away.”

Guo (Kai Ko) has made his interest in Lianqing obvious. But she is focused enough to want to stick to her plan, ands wary enough to decline Guo’s help and almost rebuff his advances. She’s scrubbing dishes at a busy restaurant, not quite off the books, but close. She is paying the restaurant owner rent, and sending much of the rest of her cash home to her impoverished mother.

Guo, who has taken a job in a cousin’s textile factory, shows up at her work, gathers her pack and possessions and insists she quit and join him there.

She declines.

But as the narrow path to success in this new life turns out to be a dead end, Lianqing faces unspoken choices — tie her fate to Guo’s, or join some of her roommates in Thailand’s most infamous trade — sex work.

Writer-director Midi Z lets his camera linger over details of this world — the inflatable raft that takes Lianqing across the Moei River into Thailand, which turns out to be a brief journey made utterly routine by the first team of human traffickers she has to pay off on her trek. Then, a motorbike ride, then the pick-up, then piling into a three-wheeled Tuk Tuk (taxi).

Meals are viewed in real time — Liannqing brings jars of Burmese pickles and hot peppers into Thailand in her pack, and virtually no clothes. Conversations are spare and work is tedium itself — cleaning dishes and washing them, dozens at a time, clearing the threads on a loom.

There may be subtexts on ethnic ties and Taiwanese involvement in the larger trade and smuggling schemes that I didn’t pick up on. But Guo’s behavior is redneck patriarchy at its most universal.

He has a crush, a motorbike and family connections. Lianqing should embrace all that and cling to the piece of “home” he represents, or so he thinks.

Midi Z’s symbolic/dream rendering of sex work for a virginal innocent like Lianqing is symbolically blunt — a water monitor lizard crawling over her.

But that at least is dramatic and earns a reaction from the poker-faced Ke-Xi Wu. Incidents are few and far between in this movie of “situations” our heroine finds herself in.

“Road to Mandalay,” which has nothing to do with a Hollywood silent film of the same title, is slow cinema — lingering takes to set a scene, put us in a factory of in the rural town Lianqing travels to to bribe a local Army officer for fake ID papers.

The pace makes the few things that “happen” feel more dramatic, and heightens the reaction to the final act, which is tense and fraught.

I found this parable a tad pokey for my tastes, almost sleep-inducing in the middle acts. The title promises a picture with more momentum, a longer “road” journey, and I was disappointed when it settled into how hard it is to get work and get by in Bangkok.

But every immigrant taking such a journey, courageously dealing with unsavory characters every step of the way, is inherently fascinating, and “Road to Mandalay” benefits from that. As “real” as this is, a heroine proactive and assertive enough to take these risks would certainly be more interesting than the passive way Ke-Xi plays her, or that Midi Z paints into this woebegone dilemma.

MPA Rating: unrated, adult situations, violence

Cast: Ke-Xi Wu, Kai Ko

Credits: Scripted and directed by Midi Z. A Film Movement Plus release.

Running time: 1:48

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