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Undocumented Migration and Pirated Ethnicity: Midi Z’s Siamophone Films

Monday, April 23, 2018 at 4:30pm

A.D. White House, Guerlac Room

Brian Bernards

University of Southern California

4:30 pm | April 23 | Guerlac Room, A.D. White House

Reception to Follow

Since 2010, the Taiwan-based Sino-Burmese director Midi Z has established himself as one of the most compelling storytellers and audiovisual aestheticians in Southeast Asian independent cinema.  Many aspects of Midi Z’s biography are loosely distributed across his four feature films: while the first and third of these films, Return to Burma (2011) and Ice Poison (2014), are predominantly set in his Burmese hometown of Lashio, Poor Folk (2012) and The Road to Mandalay (2016) were shot and set in Thailand (both in the northern areas of Chiang Mai province bordering Myanmar and in Bangkok).  Integral to Midi Z’s transnational portraits of a marginal yet mobile Sinophone “precariat” traversing the borders of Myanmar, Yunnan, Thailand, and Taiwan (reflecting the director’s own life trajectory) are the “Siamophone” conditions his films highlight: undocumented migration, illicit labor, and human and drug trafficking that have a mutually parasitic relationship with Thailand’s economic and cultural politics.  In Poor Folk and The Road to Mandalay, Midi Z’s interchangeable concealment of documentary reality and concocted fiction—as well as his shooting without government authorization in some cases—mirrors the covert migration to Thailand of his protagonists, their purchase of forged documents to secure work in Thailand or to exit the country, and their need to hide their Burmeseness from official surveillance to avoid arrest and deportation.  Focusing on how these protagonists draw on the multicultural milieu of Thailand’s upland terrain to “pirate” their ethnic identities and determine the terms of their inclusion under state regimes of census and surveillance, I argue that Thailand serves as a critical jumping-off point for Midi Z to draw on Siamophone conditions to audio-visually refashion Sino-Burmese subjectivities.


Workshop on the ethics of documentary filmmaking and humanitarian crisis in Myanmar with Brian Bernards at 12:00 pm, April 23, 2018 at Kahin Center. Please RSVP to Shu-mei Lin (sl2688). Lunch provided.


Brian Bernards is associate professor of East Asian Languages and Cultures and Comparative Literature at University of Southern California. He is also the author of Writing the South Seas: Imagining the Nanyang in Chinese and Southeast Asian Postcolonial Literature (University of Washington Press, 2015) and co-editor of Sinophone Studies: A Critical Reader (Columbia University Press, 2013).


This series of events is jointly organized by Comparative Cultures and Literature Forum (CCLF), East Asian Program Graduate Student Steering Committee (EAP-GSSC) and Southeast Asia Program (SEAP), with generous support from Taiwan Cinema Toolkit, Society for the Humanities, Department of Comparative Literature, Graduate and Professional Student Assembly, Department of International and Comparative Labor, Department of Labor Relations, Law, and History, Department of Government, China and Asia Pacific Studies Program, Department of Performing and Media Arts, and Department of History of Art.

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