After years of working and saving in Taipei, Wang Xing-hong is returning home. He had planned to travel with his co-worker Rong, but instead he will carry his countryman’s ashes. A movie shot secretly in Myanmar is in the running for a major award at Asia’s top film festival this week with its director saying he wanted to portray the “real” state of life in the country. “It is about the truth of Burma,” said Myanmar-born director Midi Z of his first full-length feature, “Return To Burma”. “It is reality cinema”.
The final product can very well be of interest for people from Burma living abroad nowadays, if only to let them see what changed in the mean time. An initial form of democracy is one aspect, but we see and hear only the official promotions around the elections. A second interesting phenomenon is the advent of western style pop music, though a-typical for local folks, yet serving as an explicit escape from the past. The end result we saw screened has all the appearances of a documentary. The home coming after many years is only a means to an end, namely to show contemporary Burma. For this purpose we see our main character asking about wages and prices, which is the best way to obtain information that is particularly useful when coming from a different country with a much higher standard of living. He was used to wages 10 times as high as what was normal in current Burma. Even though we spend so much time with him, Xing-hong is a difficult figure to access. He’s closed off, neither affectless nor overly passionate. We understand the way he thinks through the questions he asks once he’s back home, all revolving around the income of people and the prices of things.
It is probably a small miracle the Burma-born Taiwan-based Midi Z and his crew-members were not imprisoned during the Return shoot. Three challenges were mentioned: (a) censorship, being avoided but I missed the details, (b) crew of only three persons, and (c) emotions when filming in his own home town, making it difficult to stay objective. Through it, we get a sense of Burma’s place not geographically, but economically: the disparity of Xing-hong’s income to those back home is stark, and bound up with his questions is also the question of the worth of a person’s life, whether in Burma or somewhere else. What struck me most was the difference between the village where our main characters originally came from, compared with the city that was visited at a later stage. For instance, in the village we saw no electric devices, while the city appeared to be full of them. The latter is shown explicitly by visiting a shop that sells micro waves, phones, and more such devices.
We follow Xing-hong as he makes house calls throughout his hometown, re-introducing himself to friends and family. With each visit, we discover what everyone makes for a living, and more heart-breakingly, how little they earn, especially compared to what Xing-hong was making in Taiwan. Slowly, the significance of those twelve years abroad becomes apparent to us and to him, who despite having been absent for so long, has returned to a country whose local economies have not changed. Bookended in the beginning by Xing-hong’s return to Burma and in the end by his brother’s emigration to Malaysia to earn better wages, it is clear that Xing-hong’s community will always be in a permanent work debt, no matter how entrepreneurial or persistent they are. This film was a depressing one, and one I can only recommend to those with a strong sense of viewership. We could easily consider it a sightseeing tour in Burma, covering the old ways (the village) as well as the modern ways (the city) next to each other.