The country he finds – and that we see through his eyes – has the feeling of a ghost country. People live without domestic electricity in one-storey shacks, hunkering over family photographs by candlelight. Youngsters with any nous regularly go abroad to work. Anyone with of an entrepreneurial spirit soon becomes entangled in red tape, as Xing-Hong discovers when he contemplates the huge step of buying a tricycle. Nonetheless, people make some kind of commerce happen, smuggling goods across the border from China.
The tone is studiously apolitical, but criticism of the regime is implicit in the characters' understated grumblings. The owner of a small peanut oil mill complains that the electricity supply is “horrible,” i.e., virtually non-existent. Another character is excited by a particular brand of cigarettes because it's supposed to have some vague connection with England, although he goes on to note that the quality has dropped since the government took a controlling interest in the firm. Not that it's really possible to avoid politics in a country where propaganda is pumped out through the radio in the form of gratingly silly pop songs.
It's not exactly an eventful film, but Return to Burma is valuable for its wealth of small, poignant insights into an enigmatic land and a people who usually have little in the way of a voice. Anyone with an interest in the Far East should definitely seek it out.