This month, two films highlight the daily struggles of the impoverished and their hard-fought battles to escape their circumstances.
Ken Loach, a pioneer in British activist cinema, won his second Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival last year with I, Daniel Blake, a passionate indictment of the state’s treatment of the poor and vulnerable. Loach lays bare the pernicious institutional hurdles that prevent low-income citizens from getting the help they need to survive.
Daniel (Dave Johns), a 59-year-old widower living in Newcastle, is recovering from a heart attack. But when he is denied unemployment benefits following a flawed screening procedure, he is plunged into a Dante-esque inferno of form filling that proves insurmountable for the computer-illiterate carpenter (a reminder of how new kinds of discrimination have sprung up in the tech age).
Daniel’s nobility shines through in his support of desperate single mother Katie (Hayley Squires), whom Daniel meets while battling condescending officials at the local job centre. Like Loach’s 1966 TV drama Cathy Come Home, which changed perceptions of homelessness in the UK at the time, Daniel and Katie’s stories force us to stare poverty in the face.
Exposing the exploitation that awaits migrant workers in a foreign country is Midi Z’s The Road to Mandalay. The film follows Lianqing (Wu Ke-xi) and Guo (Kai Ko), two Burmese-Chinese twentysomethings who meet while sneaking into Thailand from Myanmar. As a smitten Guo watches on, Lianqing keeps knocking on wrong doors to obtain fake documents so she can leave backbreaking manual labour for a better-paid job. While Loach evokes the earthy humour and warmth of northern English grassroots culture, Z’s bleak vision has his protagonists cheated by Burmese entrepreneurs, factory supervisors and brokers who fleece their employees.
The titular Mandalay is the former Burmese royal capital where homecoming migrants pass through to stock up on gifts to show off their success abroad. The city serves as an unreachable symbol of aspiration for the characters. The audience only sees their lives in Thailand, but Lianqing’s stone-cold gaze and bony frame speak volumes about the destitution that drove her to leave home.
Z, a Myanmar-born, Taiwan-based director, is acclaimed for pitilessly realistic docu-dramas about his home country’s downtrodden people, from opium farmers to jade miners. In The Road to Mandalay, his methodical, low-key narrative, enveloped in an eerie score, weaves spellbinding magic with bleakly beautiful compositions, like the shots of Lianqing untangling a mesh of crisscrossing fibres – a striking metaphor of her own uncertain future.