Star of the Month — December, 2016
Star of the Month — December, 2016 - Taipei Film Commission
“Everything can be changed, because the story will always be there”: Interview with The Road to Mandalay Director Midi Z
(Article/ Ho Chun-mu; photography & video/ May Wen)
The Road to Mandalay Director Midi Z in an interview with Taipei Film Commission.
Director Midi Z lost significant weight. The interview was only a couple of days after he returned from Myanmar, in the midst of 14-hour-a-day promotional events. Early this month, his new film The Road to Mandalay screened at a century-old, 800-seat theater. “It was like a historical event,” he said. The Burmese government used to have strict film censorship. With political changes and increased openness, The Road to Mandalay became the first publicly screened film in Myanmar to feature realistic depictions of Burmese society in the past 50 years. The director himself was also nervous about whether the audience would appreciate the film’s story of the “Taiwanese Dream” inspired by his home country.
Without air-conditioning, at 30 degrees Celsius, members of Burmese and international press witnessed the historic 108 minutes in the steaming hot theater. After the film, some journalists, in tears, shared their thoughts. “I don’t think it was because the film awed them,” Midi Z said emotionally. “Instead, I think it was because they used to live in a time when they had no freedom of speech, and now their country progressed and became more open to a point where films that reflect their reality can be shown.”
Origin and Production of the Film
The Road to Mandalay is based on a true story in Midi Z’s hometown more than 20 years ago. The female protagonists is based on Midi Z’s own elder sister. The film tells the romance between a pair of young man and woman (played by Kai Ko and Wu Ke-xi) who enter Thailand illegally to look for work. Before the film was even publicly released, it won the FEDEORA Award for Best Film at the 73rd Venice International Film Festival and is nominated for six Golden Horse Awards including Best Film, Best Actor, and Best Actress. Since his first film Return to Burma, Midi Z has become the most award-winning and the most internationally-recognizable among Taiwan’s young generation of directors.
The Road to Mandalay is based on a true story in Midi Z’s hometown more than 20 years ago. The film tells the romance between a pair of young man and woman (played by Kai Ko and Wu Ke-xi) who enter Thailand illegally to look for work. (Still/ Seashore Image Productions and Flash Forward Entertainment)
Midi Z revealed that the outline for The Road to Mandalay was ready in 2008. After completing the first draft of the screenplay in late 2009, he began production on other feature films and documentaries. In early 2015, the screenplay was in its ninth draft, and preproduction commenced. As roles were cast, locations were confirmed, and politics evolved, he modified the screenplay accordingly. When filming began in late 2015, the screenplay was in its twelfth draft.
As opposed to the guerrilla filmmaking done by a three-person crew for Return to Burma, Poor Folk, and Ice Poison, The Road to Mandalay had a budget near 30 million TWD and a crew of 200 people. Although it had the production scale that resembled a commercial feature film, communication and management posed challenges for Midi Z, such as how he could make his requirements known to the whole crew. This significantly frustrated Midi Z. In addition, because the film is still technically low-budget, the original 70-day shooting schedule was compressed to 24 days, while the location plans did not go as expected, requiring the production to travel 300 kilometers from Bangkok to North Thailand. These contingencies required him to improvise, for which he felt that he was forced to spend most of his energy on communication and managerial aspects of production instead of actual directing.
Midi Z believes that the increase of equipment and resources did not affect his vision for the film and that the essence of the film, the core of the story, and the actors’ performances were his focus. (Still/ Seashore Image Productions and Flash Forward Entertainment)
Midi Z added, “The increase in equipment and resources did not expand or contract my vision for the film. I still focused on the essence of the film, the core of the story, and the actors’ performances. I think it is important to note that as the director, my vision never changed when my crew grew from 3 to 200 people, and the budget went from 500 thousand to 30 million Taiwanese dollars.”
Time was mostly spent on training actors to have amateurish qualities.
For the film’s production, Midi Z spent most of his time on training the cast. In late 2014, when the lead roles were cast, he had Kai Ko work on farms in Myanmar and Wu Ke-xi work as a dishwasher in Taipei. The two actors were then brought to a factory in Thailand, where they spent eight months transforming themselves into laborers, so that they could blend into the cast of first-time actors and maintain the film’s realism.
Stars Kai Ko and Wu Ke-xi spent eight months training to blend naturally into the cast of first-time actors. (Still/ Seashore Image Productions and Flash Forward Entertainment)
“Kai Ko was cast via an audition process. I saw his talents and potential in acting that make him more than a mere pop idol.” Midi Z did not deny that casting Kai Ko posed risks for The Road to Mandalay and might end up being a disaster, yet he was willing to take the gamble. As for his frequent collaborator Wu Ke-xi, Midi Z described her as having precision in her acting and possessing a fierce personality that was perfect for the role “Lianqing.” Her nomination for the Golden Horse Award for Best Actress this year serves as a recognition for her achievements in Midi Z’s films.
Though popular among film festivals and capital venture internationally, Midi Z, who was not formally trained in filmmaking, still feels great uncertainty about his art and inadequate understanding of the art form. He professed that he learned filmmaking by making films. After making his first three features under resource constraints, he learned to work within the confines of production, foregoing original plans for the films and make modifications on the script and the execution. “Everything can be changed, because the story will always be there.”
Midi Z later discovered that the “primitive” approach to filmmaking was also adopted at one point by master filmmakers including Ang Lee, Ho Hsiao-hsien, and Tsai Ming-liang. They told stories in their own ways and used technologies, equipment, and methods that had never been used before. “Filmmakers work in the same way as artists. They explore cinema through their own understanding of it.” Midi Z emphasized that he had never felt any deeper understanding of filmmaking through increase in budget and a more complex departmentalization. “I have accepted my fate of not having massive resources at my disposal. For my future films, I will use whatever resources I have to the fullest with my ‘primitive’ approach,” he said in good spirits.
[About the Director]
Midi Z is a Myanmar-born screenwriter, director, and producer. He came to Taiwan to study when he was 16 and went on to receive training in design and art, earning a graduate degree from Department of Industrial and Commercial Design, National Taiwan University of Science and Technology. In 2006, his thesis film Paloma Blanca was selected at Busan International Film Festival and Göteborg Film Festival. From 2011 to 2014, he made three feature films - Return to Burma, Poor Folk, and Ice Poison - with less than 10 thousand USD in budget and under 10 days of filming schedule for each film.
In 2011, his feature debut Return to Burma was nominated for the New Currents Award at Busan International Film Festival and the Tiger Award at International Film Festival Rotterdam. In 2014, Ice Poison won Best Film at Edinburgh International Film Festival, Best Director at Peace and Love Film Festival in Dalarna, Sweden, Best Director and Media’s Choice Award at Taipei Film Festival, and a Best Director nomination at the Golden Horse Award. The film was also selected to represent Taiwan in the Best Foreign Language Film consideration at the Academy Awards.
In 2015, Midi Z won the L’atelier ARTE Prize at Cannes Film Festival, Screenplay Creation Funds at Amiens International Film Festival, the Asian Cinema Fund in Busan, Best Screenplay at Taipei Golden Horse Film Project Promotion, a grant from France’s National Centre for Cinema and the Moving Image, and a grant from Berlinale World Cinema Fund, with the screenplay for The Road to Mandalay.
In 2015, he worked with PTS on two documentaries - Jade Miners and City of Jade. The former was selected at International Film Festival Rotterdam and Vienna Film Festival and won the Merit Prize at Taiwan International Documentary Festival. The latter was selected as the opening film for the International Forum of New Cinema category at Berlin International Film Festival and was nominated for Best Documentary at the Golden Horse Awards.
His latest drama, The Road to Mandalay, was selected at the 73rd Venice International Film Festival and won FEDEORA Award for Best Film and was nominated for six Golden Horse Awards including Best Film and Best director. Midi Z also won Outstanding Taiwanese Filmmaker of the Year at the Golden Horse Awards.