The hardscrabble existence of Chinese Burmese refugees in Thailand is examined in “Poor Folk,” an absorbing sophomore feature by Burma-born, Taiwan-based multihyphenate Midi Z. Repping a major step forward from his earnest but unfocused debut, “Return to Burma,” the pic bogs down occasionally with inert long takes and could use more detail to help auds understand the background of Burma’s ethnic Chinese population. Nevertheless, the intertwining dramas of these displaced persons are engaging on a raw human level. A solid fest run is indicated, and specialty broadcasters should cast an eye over “Folk.”
Borrowing its title from Dostoyevsky’s epistolary novel about the divide between rich and poor, the pic pivots mainly around the activities of long-term refugee A-fu (Zhao De-fu) and his younger sidekick, A-hong (Wang Shin-hong), a fresh arrival from across the border. An experienced hustler whose legit job is running bus tours of Thailand for Chinese visitors, A-fu has enlisted A-hong as his partner in supplying Thai drug bosses with the raw materials for amphetamine production. Urgently in need of cash to buy back his teenage sister, who has been sold into slavery, A-hong has little choice but to go along with the plan.
Confident A-fu and shy A-hong are an engaging team, and there’s a nice streak of grim humor in their sometimes bumbling attempts to move into the company of fearsome bigtime crooks. Most auds should have little trouble sympathizing with these lawbreakers, played in a low-key fashion by the appealing Zhao and Wang.
Intercut with A-fu and A-hong’s Bangkok-based enterprises are grim scenes set in Dagudi, a northern border village populated by thousands of Burmese refugees and illegal immigrants with little or no prospect of going anywhere else in the near future. Stuck there for years and desperate to relocate to Taiwan, Sun-mei (Wu Ke-xi) works at a brothel run by Wu-niang (Lee Su-fang), a seemingly kindly old mother-hen type.
With a matter-of-factness that creeps up on viewers and imparts both shock and profound sadness, it slowly comes to light that Wu-niang and Sun-mei are involved in the trafficking of young girls from Burma to Thailand. Even more disturbing is the revelation that they are about to take delivery of A-hong’s teenage sister, Ting Ting (Zhao Yu-ting).
Even though it contains protracted shots of people walking long distances that offer no great dramatic purchase, and delivers very little of the character background that many auds desire in stories such as this, “Poor Folk” creates a vivid portrait of lost souls drawn to crime as a means of support and a method of escape.
Some jittery handheld camerawork aside, the HD visuals of Bangkok tourist spots and the dusty nothingness of Dagudi are fine. Location sound recording has a few rough spots; the excellent score by Sonic Deadhorse includes some terrific combinations of electronics and acoustic guitar.
The film’s Mandarin title is derived from four chapter headings that appear, namely “Poor Folk,” “Durian,” “Amphetamines” and “Stowaway.”