For his acclaimed comeback movie, Taiwanese star Kai Ko learns Burmese and Thai for six months

The Road To Mandalay (above).
The Road To Mandalay (above).PHOTO: SINGAPORE INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL

Film-maker Midi Z tells stories of poverty and desperation faced by ethnic Chinese in Myanmar in The Road To Mandalay

Taiwanese actor Kai Ko's career was barrelling along at top speed after the huge success of the youth comedy romance, You Are The Apple Of My Eye (2011), until he was arrested in 2014 in Beijing for using marijuana.

For that offence, he was detained for two weeks and banned from working in Chinese show business.

His first film since then is The Road To Mandalay by Myanmar- born, Taiwan-based film-maker Midi Z. He and Taiwanese actress Wu Ke-xi play migrants from Myanmar who sneak into Thailand in search of a better life.

Ko, 25, tells The Straits Times over the telephone from Taiwan: "I'm very happy I still have the opportunity to make films. I wanted to do this after looking at the script and the director. I like the feeling of making movies again."

This film reflected reality and yet it could be openly screened. It was a historic moment.

DIRECTOR MIDI Z on The Road To Mandalay being screened in Myanmar, where realist movies about the lives of the Myanmar people have generally been disallowed in the past. It is about Myanmar migrants sneaking to Thailand in search of a better life and stars Wu Ke-xi and Kai Ko

The film will be screened at Marina Bay Sands' Grand Theatre on Dec 1 at 7.15pm, as part of the Singapore International Film Festival, which runs from today to Dec 4.

An In Conversation session with the film-makers and cast will be held on Dec 1 at 3pm.

Ko, who won a Golden Horse Award for Best New Actor for Apple, has been nominated for Best Actor at the same ceremony for his work in Mandalay.

The film is up for five other nominations - for Best Feature Film, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, Best Actress for Wu and Best Art Direction.

Regardless of the result, Ko sees the nod as "a comfort and an acknowledgement of the hard work put in".

He had spent a year preparing for the role of Guo; learning Burmese and Thai already took half a year. He also visited the director's hometown of Lashio to thoroughly immerse himself in his character's background.

  • BOOK IT /THE ROAD TO MANDALAY

  • WHERE: Grand Theatre, Marina Bay Sands, 10 Bayfront Avenue

    WHEN: Dec 1, 7.15pm

    ADMISSION: $15 (standard) from Sistic (call 6348-5555 or go to www.sistic.com.sg)

    INFO: Go to sgiff.com. Film-maker Midi Z, producer Patrick Huang and actors Kai Ko and Wu Ke-xi will be at the screening

    IN CONVERSATION: THE ROAD TO MANDALAY

    WHERE: ArtScience Museum, Marina Bay Sands, 6 Bayfront Avenue

    WHEN: Dec 1, 3pm

    ADMISSION: Refundable $5 ticket via sgiff-inconversation-theroadtomandalay.peatix.com. Film-maker Midi Z, producer Patrick Huang and actors Kai Ko and Wu Ke-xi will be at the session

"What are they thinking about? I also went to a factory to understand why the workers wanted to come to Thailand."

Wu, 33, recalls that they had to stay in a rather shabby motel for two months while they were "working" at the factory. "There was a foul-smelling drain right outside the window and you could see these scary-looking alligators or monitor lizards swimming in it."

She told the director about it as she wanted to switch accommodation. Instead, he incorporated a monitor lizard into a scene.

Asked if she regrets mentioning the creature and she laughs, saying: "No, I like taking risks and not knowing what's going to happen next. And that's the draw of the film."

The actress, whose background is in theatre, has collaborated with Midi Z in his previous films, Ice Poison (2014) and Poor Folk (2012), as well as several of his short films.

As a result of those collaborations, she has even been mistaken for a Myanmar national.

Midi Z, 33, muses: "It can be a disadvantage when it comes to competitions as people simply think you're from Myanmar and are playing yourself. On the plus side, it means you've acted so convincingly that people can't tell you're Taiwanese."

The Road To Mandalay was based on an actual story the film-maker, whose Chinese name is Chao Te-yin and who goes by Midi Z in English, had heard in his village: A couple had returned home and got married after saving up money working in Thailand, but the tale had a twist to it.

Variety says of the film: "Midi Z has now delivered a tightly edited and emotionally rewarding drama that places him in the top rank of Asian social realists."

On Nov 7, it was shown in Yangon at the Memory International Film Festival, the first time his work has been screened in his home country.

The fact that it passed the censors was "a big deal".

Midi Z points out that in the past five decades, realist movies about the ordinary lives of the Myanmar people have generally been disallowed.

There were some in the media who were really touched by the movie as they had been jailed for their criticisms of the country in the past.

"This film reflected reality and yet it could be openly screened. It was a historic moment," says the film-maker.

He is the youngest of five children and had moved to Taiwan at 16 for his high-school education by earning a place from more than 6,000 applications.

He received a master's degree in design from the National Taiwan University of Science and Technology and became a citizen of Taiwan in 2011.

His graduation work, the short film Paloma Blanca, screened at Busan International Film Festival and Copenhagen International Film Festival, among others.

All four of his feature films, starting from his debut Return To Burma (2011), have been stories of poverty and desperation featuring ethnic Chinese from Myanmar.

It is a world the director is familiar with.

"I'm still a new director and I'm still exploring, so I'm starting with things that are indelible to me.

"My elder brother and sister had illegally snuck into Thailand to work and yearned to go to Taiwan."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 23, 2016, with the headline 'The painful road to new life'. Print Edition | Subscribe