Two very different women, both of them terminally ill, meet while smoking outside the hospital and form an intense bond that leads to love in What Happened to the Wolf?, a tenderhearted melodrama from Myanmar. Written, directed and photographed by Na Gyi, whose first film, Mi, made the rounds at several fests, this earnest work might seem a bit conventional and saccharine to Western viewers used to out-and-proud queer cinema. But it’s quite radical and brave in the context of its setting in Myanmar, where LGBTQ+ people face legal persecution, prison and state-encouraged violence all the time.
What’s more, there’s a horrifying background story attached. Made before the military junta seized control of the country early this year, the director and Paing Phyoe Thu, who plays one of the main roles and is married to Na Gyi in real life, have had to go into hiding since they were accused of using their celebrity to oppose the coup. Meanwhile, little is known about what’s happened to Eaindra Kyaw Zin, the film’s other main actor, who was arrested and imprisoned in February. If the film could find exposure on the festival circuit, especially at events with a focus on human rights, one hopes that could be a boost in drawing attention to the plight of those still oppressed and endangered in this troubled Asian country, which has of late slipped back out of the headlines in the West.
What Happened to the Wolf?
Love is stronger than death.
The daughter of a wealthy family who has also built up her own independently successful business, Moe (Paing Phyoe Thu) is utterly devastated to learn she has cancer that’s spread to her lungs and is likely to kill her soon. When first seen, she’s on the floor of her elegant townhouse bathroom bleeding out from her wrists, having just tried to commit suicide.
Fortunately, her husband, Ye Moe (Eaindra Kyaw Zin ), gets her to the hospital in time to save her life. There she meets the much younger Way Way (Paing Phyoe Thu), just out of her teens, who has had a heart condition from birth. A natural rebel who loves rock music — in her native language as well as the songs of Anglophone bands like Nirvana, Way Way is a mischievous troublemaker who doesn’t seem to care about her impending death. She’s positively rude to her older brother, Min Han (Kyaw Htet Aung, host of Myanmar Idol). Poor Min Han has taken care of her ever since their parents died in a shipwreck, and gave up his dream of becoming a photographer to pursue medicine in the hope of finding a cure for Way Way.
As each woman’s health deteriorates, Moe takes steps to ensure that her husband inherits her business and not her father, whom she despises for reasons only revealed quite late on. But in order to make sure Ye Moe will be looked after, Moe must divorce him first, a plot point that’s almost as confusing as why it is that Way Way insists on being so cruel to her long-suffering brother. In any event, these plot strands need to be resolved to make way for the final act, when the two women, still just chaste best friends at this point, take off on a road trip to see a famous local beauty spot called the Sea of Clouds. It’s not until the last minutes of the film that they actually kiss passionately, but that was enough even before the February coup to put the filmmakers at risk.
Appropriately enough given that the character of Way Way is an aspiring photographer herself, the cinematography here is quite lovely, a study in airy compositions full of negative space, often glazed by warm sunshine. There’s heat as well between the two lead actors, who bring nuance and commitment to their performances, even if the script veers off into overripe dramatic excess.