Based on the actual experiences of the protagonist and Midi Z’s long-time collaborator Wang Shin-hong, “14 Apples” is a film set as a documentary that sheds a rather analytical and truthful light to the actual practices of Buddhism in Burma.
Wang Shin-hong, a wealthy businessman from Mandalay, is suffering from insomnia. A fortuneteller advises him to buy fourteen apples, go to the remote monastery at the Burma’s countryside for two weeks, and live as a monk, eating only one apple a day as a form of fasting. Wang truly immerses himself in the life of a monk, having his head shaved and trying to follow the teachings of Buddhism. Soon, however, he experiences the reality of the practice, which seems to be far away from the theory.
Midi Z implements the style he used in “City of Jade”, of, mostly, a documentary, which also includes feature elements though. His approach has many similarities to a road movie, particularly due to the episodic nature of the narrative, with his tactics aiming at making a rather pointy comment regarding a number of topics, with the central one being Buddhism, and the most important secondary one, work immigrants.
In that fashion, in one of the first scenes after Wang Shin-hong has become a monk (in a process that could easily be described as too fast), we watch him walking in the rugs the “faithful” have placed on the dirt, with his eyes closed and holding a jar where the poor people of the area place alms, evidently even more than they can afford. The commercialism of the practice becomes even more palpable, since a number of people following his litany, take care of taking the larger “offerings” and placing in a bag, leaving just the cash in the jar.
The commercialization of the Buddhist practice in the country is highlighted even more in a sequence where two monks are speaking about the way they make and spend money, with one talking about gambling and the other one kind of making accusations about the source of his income.
Lastly, in another very interesting discussion, Wang speaks with two Burmese women about their upcoming trip to China in order to work, in a sequence that highlights the ignorance of those going abroad to work, and the way the companies there exploit it.
Midi Z uses a handheld camera to follow his protagonist quite closely, not even minding the continuous lack of stability in his effort to achieve the highest degree of realism. His own, Wu Pei-chi and Lin Sheng-wen’s editing retains a rather slow pace, through a number of lengthy sequences, that explore every episode to the very end, in distinct, art film fashion. This approach becomes a bit tiresome after a fashion, but the interviews-dialogues sequences provide a nice enough break from this tactic.
“14 Apples” is not an easy film to watch, particularly because Midi Z’s approach to the documentary medium is that of an auteur. However, the film manages to communicate its pointy comments quite eloquently, and that is where its true value lies.