I was much reminded of Payback when I watched this film. All of the people we encounter in Return to Burma are paid so little for their labor that work for them is a form of debt: limitless, persistent, and a marker of identity. The director, Midi Z, full of compassion and insight, shows how work-as-debt can be as pervasive and as spirit-crushing as the dictatorship in which they live.
The protagonist, Xing-hong, having worked in Taiwan earning relatively decent wages, finally returns home to Burma after twelve years. 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.
Return to Burma was filmed with a single (and very still) camera and long takes, which allows us to fully identify with each character and his/her milieu, and was scored, subtly, with Burmese pop-song government propaganda, which likewise allows us to feel the repressiveness of the regime.
A very rare instance of a film being made and shot entirely in Burma, this film was also in competition at the 2011 Vancouver International Film Festival and at the Busan International Film Festival.
Return to Burma. Dir. Midi Z. Montage Film Production, et al., 2011. In Chinese.