By Olivia Yang
With his hair unfixed, black Nike jacket zipped to his neck, and a worn black backpack slung over one shoulder, Midi Z (趙德胤) looks different from the tuxedo-clad director who received the award for Outstanding Taiwanese Filmmaker of the Year at the 53rd Golden Horse Awards on Nov. 26.
The 33-year-old Myanmar-born director, who is based in Taiwan, gives a shy nod upon his arrival, sits down, and orders a hot Americano. He keeps his eyes down as he listens to me ramble an introduction, merely giving me fleeting glances from time to time.
So it surprises me when Midi Z looks me straight in the eye when he starts talking and his stare does not waver.
“It doesn’t really mean anything to me when people call me a Taiwanese director, a Myanmar director or a Myanmar-born Taiwanese director,” he says slowly, but firmly.
Pursuing a ‘Taiwanese dream’
Midi Z was born in Lashio, Shan State, in eastern Myanmar, to parents of Chinese descent. At the age of 16, he came to Taiwan alone on a scholarship to seek a better life. This is a “Taiwanese dream” many people in Myanmar have, but most are unable realize.
Pinning all their hopes to the youngest of their five children, Midi Z’s family spent a month’s worth of living expenses to purchase an application to take a Taiwan high school entrance exam. The director ranked in the top 50 out of more than 6,000 applicants, and then it took his family six months to save the HK$ 20,000 (US$2,577) it cost for a passport – 80 percent of the money came from Midi Z’s eldest sister’s savings from working in Thailand, another country people from Myanmar travel to for work. It was enough money to buy a house in Myanmar.
Upon his arrival in Taiwan, in 1998, Midi Z decided against enrolling in one of the most prestigious high schools in Taiwan and instead went to a vocational school in Taichung, central Taiwan, because he believed it would give him skills to make more money.
Midi Z then went on to design school in Taipei for college. His graduation film, Paloma Blanca, was selected to screen at international film festivals, including the Busan International Film Festival and Copenhagen International Film Festival. It was then the filmmaker realized he could earn money, prize money at that point, through making movies.
He started to bring the plight of Myanmar migrants onto the screen, portraying how many of them dreamed of leaving their country to earn more money, but succumbing to drugs after they left. This was an issue Midi Z had witnessed with his own eyes, even among his siblings.
The novelty and honesty of his films did not fail him.
Midi Z’s third feature drama, Ice Poison (2014), was selected as the Taiwanese entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 87th Academy Awards, and his latest film (also his sixth feature film), Road to Mandalay, was screened at the 73rd Venice Film Festival and 2016 Toronto International Film Festival.
In 2011, he renounced his Myanmar citizenship and became a naturalized citizen of Taiwan.
Myanmar, China or Taiwan?
Having spent more than half of his life in Taiwan now and gradually becoming an internationally known director, Midi Z’s nationality is frequently of interest to the media. Does he identify as being from Myanmar, China or Taiwan? What country do his films represent? How does he feel when people call him the “pride of Taiwan?”
The director says he is numb to these questions.
“I guess it’s because I don’t really have the personalities of an artist or director. At least, for me, I don’t think I do,” says Midi Z. “I’m more about the practical things. For example, how much money I have left in my bank account, when I need to pay the bills or what my next film is going to be about. I’ve actually been thinking a lot about my next film recently.”
The director says in the past he didn’t have much of a choice when conceiving ideas for movies because he was always filming on a tight budget (less than NT$500,000 [US$15,700] for his first three feature productions). But now Midi Z is hoping to have a budget NT$100 million or NT$200 million, so he has been contemplating how he is going to make his next film. He says that it’s not “what” he wants to film that’s most important to him, but “how” he will film.
“The way you make a movie will decide what kind of director you are in the industry and in the world,” says Midi Z. “But when you’re thinking about what movie you want to make and where you want to film, you must face the question: where are you from?”
“I don’t think there is an answer. The answer is a presentation of your existence.”
The director also says that localization is becoming extremely reduced around the world. Instead, globalization has taken over our lives and thoughts, so he believes while it is important to talk about where one is from on an emotional level, it is unimportant on a rational level.
“I don’t really have an emotional side, but it does come out when I’m filming. That is why the topic of being a migrant from Myanmar keeps coming up in my films. It’s because deep inside and emotionally I still have these feelings. But making movies is [a] rational [process]. These feelings can only be hidden in my works and the characters,” says Midi Z. “I’m working for my films and the world I understand.”
Fearless of backlash in Myanmar
Midi Z’s latest film, Road to Mandalay, was screened for the first time in Myanmar on Nov. 7, and more than 200 local media were present. In interviews the next day, reporters told Midi Z that people were saying his movie was not a Myanmar film and the language, clothing and daily habits shown in the film was not reflective of Myanmar.
To this, the director said he explained to the reporters that Myanmar is made up of 135 ethnic groups and, not counting Chinese living in the country, around 40 percent of the population doesn’t speak Burmese. He said just because authorities have made Burmese the official language does not mean just one language exists in the country.
“So when you people, coming from Yangon (the largest city in Myanmar), think that only movies that use Burmese are ‘Myanmar movies’, then it shows you haven’t been to any other place in Myanmar. Ninety percent of the country does not have running water, only Yangon does; and only 40 percent of the people dress the way you do, so if the actors are not dressed in sarongs in the movie, it doesn’t mean it’s not Myanmar,” said Midi Z.
When asked if he is afraid of backlash in Myanmar due to the way he responded to the media, the director says, “Of course I’m not. I was answering from my point of view and from the Myanmar I know.”
Midi Z says he could have asked, “All of you who live in Yangon, have you traveled to 90 percent of Myanmar like I have? No. Why aren’t you willing to do so? Because the roads are too rough. […] Otherwise, why aren’t any of you filming the many things that can be filmed in Myanmar? Why is it left to me, someone based in Taiwan?”
This was not how Midi Z answered the reporters, but the thought did cross his mind.
“I still told them quite rationally, ‘I’m filming Myanmar. But the Myanmar I see might not be the Myanmar you know.’”
Read part two of this interview here.
This article was first published in The News Lens International as “INTERVIEW: Film Director Midi Z on the ‘Taiwanese Dream’ in Myanmar (Part One)“. Cinema Escapist has been authorized to republish its contents.