Return to Burma (2011) offers an unflinching insight into an under-reported part of the world. This semi-autobiographical tale, sombre in tone yet earnest in intention, focuses on a returning Burmese emigrant, whose country, despite political reform and a programme of liberalisation, remains hopeless and stagnant. Wang Xinghong returns to Myanmar after a self-imposed exile in Taipei for a manual labouring job to save money for his return. His journey across Burma is set to a saccharine soundtrack of revolution, as pro-democracy pop songs champion the countries new found democratic sensibilities.
Wang's voyage finds little to support this aforementioned sense of optimism. Burma is a hopeless and desperate place. On return to his village, Wang is greeted by his beleaguered family, desperate and disillusioned, his younger brother already planning his own escape to neighbouring Malaysia. Economic preoccupations dominate throughout the film, from the shots of the derelict and deprived locations, to the characters lengthy discussions on the comparative value of their labour.
Return to Burma could easily have degenerated into an exercise in poverty-porn preaching, but to the credit of Midi Z. and his mainly non-professional cast, the film retains a sense of authenticity and credibility. There is a clear message and political commentary, Burma is a desolate place in terms of social opportunities, yet this stark context never completely overwhelms the narrative arc of the film. Through the eyes of Wang we view Burma as an evocative and intoxicating place; the people are invariably resilient and aspirational. There is a better tomorrow, the only sorrow being that it happens to lie on foreign shores.
The film has a suitable neorealist low tech feel throughout, given its focus on the aspirational underclass of Burma, but the film does falter somewhat in its denouement which lacks the emotional punch the film had promised. Midi Z. seems unsure how to tie things up for his protagonists, and thus the political potency is somewhat reduced which is disappointing.
Return to Burma has played well at European festivals and is sure to be welcomed by those seeking an authentic glimpse into a marginalised cultural space. Whilst deeply flawed, it seems uncharitable to over criticise such an honest and raw piece of filmmaking.