14 Apples and 14 days as a Burmese monk
After “Ice Poison” (2014) and “City of Jade” (2016), Midi Z returns to the Berlinale with 14 Apples in Forum, an accidental documentary completed within a bit more than half a month.
By Yun-hua Chen
When Midi Z went back to visit his mother in Myanmar in April 2017, he accidentally found out that his friend Wang Shin-hong, a businessman from Mandalay, was on his way to a temple to be a monk for 14 days and to eat an apple each day as a cure for his insomnia, upon the suggestion of a fortune teller. He thus embarked on the accidental adventure to the remote village called Aungda in the Magwaz region in Central Myanmar with Wang and filmed the entire process.
Immersed in the brown tone of the barren field and arid mountains, straw-thatched walls and roofs, the film is warm in colors and rich in social commentary. While Wang hesitates between buying apples imported from China or the more expensive ones from the US in the market, a child beggar waits patiently next to him for a slice of the apple. When Wang’s car wheels get stuck in sand on the hill towards the temple, a large group of half-clothed young boys comes to the rescue by spreading straw on the road and pushing the car. In exchange they receive some biscuits which they are thrilled about. Like other impoverished regions which young people are forced to leave for work and to which they very rarely return, Aungda also suffers from emigration. This is a theme which has always concerned Midi Z since the beginning of his filmmaking. Who are these people who have to leave? Are they happy where they are? While Wang stands in as an abbot to offer consultation to the villagers, two young women recount stories from their friends who leave for China to work in Chinese chili factories, banana farms, laundry shops, carrier companies, or Thai gold mines. In a calm and matter-of-fact manner, whether out of naivety or wisdom of life, they describe how their friends told them to hide in a river when border policemen started shooting, and how some got conned by their employers or smugglers. In fact, even monks want to work abroad to earn more money as people are said to donate more generously in places like Thailand.
Many scenes follow the natural rhythm of linear procession, with the hand-held camera going backwards in front of Wang or progressing forward from behind Wang. Along the path through the village where Wang receives the villagers’ offerings, Wang, shaved and clothed in monks’ red robes, walks on villagers’ towels covering the muddy ground for him in adagio. The villagers pile up the offerings in his alms bowl in turn, worship on their bent knees, and then fold their towels before standing up again. These serene moments of spiritual rituals contrast with secular discussion and quarrels about payment for performing religious ceremonies, inflation, and lottery among monks at a later moment.
At the very end of the film, Wang peels one of his 14 apples under the shade and we hear a Burmese pop song called “I want to borrow a scooter to take my girlfriend on a date” in the background. It comes from an MP3 player of a man running in the dried-up fields, who has lost his mind after returning from the gold mine. The refrain almost sounds like Midi Z’s closing remark about the working of global economics and those who are forced to play along:
“My darling, where on earth are you going? Are you going by scooter? But we’ve got only Chinese scooters in Myanmar. I’ll get one for you. I can’t help it if you want a Japanese scooter. My darling, please wait for me. Wait for one, two, three years. I will work hard to make it happen.”