A Thai actor takes the stage at Cannes
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A Thai actor takes the stage at Cannes

Playing an illegal worker in Taiwanese film Mongrel, Wanlop Rungkamjad gets the international spotlight

A Thai actor takes the stage at Cannes
Wanlop Rungkamjad in Mongrel.

In a dreary rural town in Taiwan, illegal Southeast Asian workers live a precarious existence toiling away in farms or homes while enduring tough bosses and prying authorities. Most of them are from the Philippines or Indonesia, but there are also a large number from Myanmar and Thailand.

In the Taiwanese-Singaporean film Mongrel showing in the Directors' Fortnight programme of the 77th Cannes Film Festival, a Thai worker called Oom (Wanlop Rungkamjad) is seen tending to a disabled man, deliberately wiping faeces off his behind, deliberately performing the extremely unpleasant task with a face devoid of emotion. Besides working in factories and fields, many Thai illegal migrants in Taiwan are hired as caregivers of the elderly and the disabled. They fulfil, perhaps, the moral obligations of the Confucius principle on behalf of Taiwanese men and women far too busy for them.

"For research and preparation, the filmmakers flew me to Taiwan and I spent a lot of time talking with migrant workers, most of them illegal," says Wanlop, who has appeared in several independent films over the past 14 years. "Caregiving is a demanding job. But that's what many migrant workers in the grey area of the labour market resort to in order to make a living."

Wanlop starred in the 2018 Venice-winning film Manta Ray, playing a fisherman who rescues a Rohingya refugee from a mangrove forest. Last year, he played an enigmatic motorbike punk in Morrison, a Cold War parable set in an abandoned hotel in the Northeast. But the film that launched him is the 2010 mournful romance Eternity, which won a top prize at the International Film Festival Rotterdam. When he's not in front of the camera, Wanlop is a TV commercial producer. He's also a well-known figure in the ultra-marathon circuit, clocking upwards of 100km in races up and down trails and mountains in Thailand and abroad.

Mongrel is Wanlop's first non-Thai film, and it's a project that he dedicated a big part of his life to.

Mongrel, a Taiwanese film starring Thai actor Wanlop Rungkumjad.

"Before shooting, I spent a lot of Zoom calls with the directors, going through each scene and discussing how to execute them," Wanlop says.

"I had to learn Mandarin, first in Thailand and then in Taiwan. On set, the directors would come up with new dialogue, and I had to learn it on the spot. I couldn't just memorise the words. The idea is to understand the lines, to know their meaning, and only then could I deliver them convincingly."

Altogether, Wanlop spent five months in Taiwan to prepare and shoot the film. Mongrel doesn't seem like an easy film to make, and it certainly demands a lot of attention and investment from the audience.

In the film, Wanlop's character (which goes by the actor's actual nickname Oom) is pushed into a tight corner by debilitating circumstances. Bruised and beaten, grilled and beseeched, Oom struggles to find humanity in a foreign place he's chosen to stay in and now can't escape. There finally comes a time when he has to make the most wrenching decision in his life.

Statistics from the Labour Ministry state that there are around 67,000 Thai migrant workers in Taiwan, more than any other country in the world. The number goes higher if illegal workers are included.

Wanlop Rungkamjad in Mongrel.

Mongrel, directed by Chiang Wei Liang and You Qiao Yin, is listed in the programme as a production from Taiwan, Singapore and France. It's a solid example of a co-produced, transnational title jointly mounted by Asian companies that explore modern stories which go beyond any specific culture. The filmmakers have made shorts about diaspora life before, and when they set out to make a feature film about Thai migrant workers in Taiwan, they reached out to a network of Southeast Asian independent filmmakers, which naturally led them to auditioning and casting Wanlop in the lead role.

A visitor walking into Cannes' Palais des Festival is greeted by a column poster of Mongrel showing Wanlop's battered face, as he stares at the camera in a posture between helplessness and defiance. The advertisement was put up by the Taiwan film authority to showcase its success in being part of the Cannes selection. Thus, in a way, a Thai actor is representing the pride of Taiwanese cinema in Cannes.

But more than that, it also represents an increasingly liberal, collaborative stream of talent and finance coursing through Asia, where filmmakers, actors and financiers from different countries can find a creative common ground of cinema, and where storytelling goes beyond geography or nationality. It's a favourable kind of mongrel.

Kong Rithdee is a deputy director of the Thai Film Archive. He reports from Cannes for the Bangkok Post.

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