The Road to Mandalay is about the journey of a 20-something-year-old girl who has snuck across the Burmese-Thai border. Having left her mother and siblings behind, she enters into a relatively wealthier country in hopes of finding a job and making a decent living. The only problem is that, as an illegal immigrant, she does not have a working permit, or really any documentation of identity.
This proves to be a large issue as reputable businesses in the big city refuse to hire anyone without legal identification. So begins Lianqing’s (played by Wu Ke-xi) costly fight to forge a new Thai identity.
The film edges by in a slow and steady manner. Scenes are cut and strung together abruptly to solely emphasize the highlights of the protagonist’s day. Conversation between characters is limited, and there are several wide-pan shots of scenic locations, urban and rural. In these ways, the understanding of the story by audience members is translated by unspoken words.
I personally appreciate films that leave it up to the audience to make connections and sense of one scene to another. However, it is precisely this intuition that traps audiences into really one of the most alarming endings I have seen in a film yet.
Our protagonist, Lianqing, finds favour with a fellow illegal immigrant named Guo. While they only meet on the car ride into the city from Burma, he intentionally seeks her out and helps her adjust to her new life. His kindness towards her is alarming but sweet. Of course, as with most Korean or Chinese dramas, you don’t really question the undying affections of the lead male character for his girl.
Lianqing struggles to obtain her identification papers and is pushed to go to extreme measures to finance the venture, one of which involves selling her body for a night to an unknown man. The hotel bedroom scene for this was shot in a unique and powerful way that I cannot help but commend.
Lianqing is waiting in the hotel room when she hears a knock. She looks away from the window she was staring through and sees a large iguana creeping on the satin white sheets. Gasping with alarm, Lianqing recoils, and the iguana slithers off the bed onto the hardwood floor. It squirms towards her until it jumps directly onto her legs. The camera pans closer onto our protagonist’s face of revulsion.
This was a powerful way to depict the protagonist’s emotions and experience of the whole ordeal. In the end, it seems as though Lianqing’s efforts pay off as she saves enough to pay her connections for a Thai identification card. It is at this moment, when you think she has finally made it past the end goal to a relatively secure position, a horrific turn of events results in Lianqing’s death.
It is this scene of death that seriously took almost everyone in the theatre by shock. What occurs changes the entire mood of the film from unassuming to subtly psychotic. It was jarring and forced viewers to rethink the mindset of which they were watching the events unfold.
I knew the premise of The Road to Mandalay was a heartbreaking story about the difficulties and dangers of illegal immigration from Burma. While the film delivers on that, it was still nowhere near what I expected, and this is precisely why I can summarize the film in one word: unforgettable.