Mi Z's life story lead him from a childhood in civil-war-torn Burma (commonly known as Myanmar) to Taiwan, where he attended university and works as a filmmaker up to this day. During Q&A with the audience the artist described Poor Folk as a film, which on a very personal level refers to his own experiences. He later explained thoroughly how the picture relates specifically to many ubiquitous complications caused by the process of migration and its often-harrowing influence on a person's life. That being the case, it's undeniably true that the director's sophomore feature emerges as an insightful and devastating example of a situation, where such difficult decisions as changing where we live are forced upon us by many different, unpredictable factors.
For those, who might be interested in the origins of the title, which is basically the same as Fyodor Dostoyevsky's accomplished first novel Midi Z explained - he's been an avid reader of Russian literature since the university years and thus it's majorly influenced his work. One of the characters is even seen reading a part of the book at one point in the film.
Poor Folk depicts real-life struggles of Burmese refugees practically living in Thailand but theoretically existing in a strange, irrational void on the border between two countries. The plot centers on two protagonists - A-hong (Wang Shin-hong) and Sun-mei (Wu Ke-xi) - who live on a day-to-day basis, without a clue what the future might bring. Though their viewpoints differ and the ordeals they go through are somewhat disproportionate, both their problems and dreams seem clearly interchangeable. Surprisingly, fate unwillingly places them on two sides of a barricade made of illegal activities and false hopes.
When A-Hong discovers that his sister has just become the latest victim of human trafficking due to their mother's selfishness and greed he decides to look for the fastest way to earn money and buy her back. But it's a little harder than he thinks. Although able to find a job as a bus tour guide in Bangkok at first, a devastating flood leaves him empty-handed once again. A-Hong soon realizes that his only chance for a happy ending is to risk everything. Along with an older, more experienced A-fu (Zhao De-fu) he begins selling strange materials for the production of amphetamine to local criminals, who are either hesitant to deal with the desperate young man or trying to trick him out of his money. The seriousness of those encounters is diminished by the couple's delightfully comical attitude towards all the ruthless gangsters. Their straightforwardness, self-confidence and bravery bring a subtle feel of joy to a film that's nowhere near that.
Sun-mei, on the other hand, apart from working at a brothel in a remote northern town Dagudi, is responsible for carrying out a completely different dirty work - she's entangled in human trafficking business. Her partner in crime is a seemingly protective and good-humored Wu-niang (Lee Su-fang), a sort of mother figure for all the girls in the group. Sun-mei's only real hope for a brighter tomorrow is a Taiwanese passport that she's supposed to get from a gang that's been bossing her around for a long time. Though the protagonist virtually doubts that she will ever see that precious document, she stills fulfills her duties in a proper manner. Shocking truth is revealed in a scene where it becomes obvious that one young girl Sun-mei's about to deliver from Burma to Thailand is A-hong's sister.
Although Poor Folk's sober ambiance and momentous content definitely make it a worthwhile experience, some of the wide shots of characters' motionless conversations feel overly long and languid. Those moments might make the audience lose focus in a very short time just before another revealing and significant sequences appear on screen, sometimes maybe too abruptly considering that the previous few minutes seemed rather uneventful.
However, as stagnant as it might sometimes be, Poor Folk comes as an arresting, memorable and authentic piece. It plays a bit like a gangster film, but due to Midi Z's observant directorial eye, it carries much more realism and noticeable attention to subtleties. After having seen the hardships that all the characters have to cope with in order to survive, in the end it actually feels very right to justify the terrible crimes that they commit in the process.