Locarno 2021 review: Money Has Four Legs (Maung Sun)

One of the first glimpses we get into Money Has Four Legs, the fascinating directorial debut by Maung Sun, takes place on a film set, where the main character, a filmmaker named Wai Bhone (played by Okkar Dat Khe) is scolding one of his actors for failing to remember her lines, only to be met by a plea for him to shoot his film “one line at a time”. He is behind schedule, there are concerns about the content of the story, no one is even sure if they are allowed to be filming in these locations and his brother-in-law broke the camera – but the director nevertheless persists in trying to get the film completed. This establishes the tone and general direction for the film, with Maung Sun gradually venturing into the heart of the film industry in a meta-fictional fable that is equal parts deadpan satire and bleak social drama. Deliberately stilted and populated by some exceptionally awkward characters that exist somewhere between genuine people and loosely defined caricatures, Money Has Four Legs is a peculiar but captivating journey into the world of independent filmmaking, created by a director who seemingly had first-hand experience in mounting a production that appears particularly personal to him. Perhaps not as polished as the entertainment industry satires that inspired it, but one that uses its limitations to bolster a strong story of seeking salvation through creative pursuits, the film is a compelling portrait of the challenges faced by contemporary artists in a world that undervalues self-expression.

Maung Sun does remarkably well in providing a succinct but insightful overview of the cinematic traditions of Myanmar throughout the film, demonstrating the challenges many filmmakers, particularly those without resources, face when developing their craft. Two primary themes underpin the film in how it portrays the journey of the main character – money and art, and how they both relate to different meanings behind the concept of success. From his perspective, Wai Bhone defines success as less the measure of how much money one makes, and more the extent to which they can freely express themselves artistically, an enormous challenge in a country where art is so heavily censored. The focus is less on giving filmmakers the chance to explore their artistic curiosity, and more about selling tickets, which causes the central conflict in the film. This leads the protagonist to act in increasingly irrational ways, even boldly asserting that “trespassing was needed for [his] art”, when it came time to resolve some particularly troubling problems and forge his way forward as someone who genuinely believed in the importance of exploring his art. The extent to which Money Has Four Legs could be seen as autobiographical isn’t clear, but Maung Sun certainly establishes a unique direction that demonstrates his deep connection to the experiences of his protagonist.

The film gradually moves from pointed satire to a gritty realist manifesto, focused on the idea of desperation breeding innovation. The protagonist stands in the shadow of his deceased father, a man who mastered the art of filmmaking, but left his son with nothing but undying ambition. Wai Bhone is fueled by desire, the kind that leads an individual to do anything to work their way out of their current situation, even if it means sacrificing their morals. The lustre of Hollywood is a distant ambition, and he oscillates between realizing his own delusions, and planning to do anything to achieve greatness, no matter the cost. As humorous as the filmmaking commentary may be, Money Has Four Legs is a film about people placing themselves in difficult situations, whether for the sake of their art, or simply for their ultimate survival. The brief punctuations of gritty authenticity in the earlier scenes gradually evolve into a deep and unnerving realist drama, showing the dire conditions of the Burmese working class, as filtered through the thoughtful story of one man trying to rise above it. There is a deep sadness that lurks beneath the exuberant comedy, and the director rarely fails to add nuance to even the most idiosyncratic situations, proving that this film is as much about the main character’s attempts to express himself artistically as it is about the social milieu of the country around him, and the people who inhabit it.

The emphasis on guerilla filmmaking, and the hardy resilience of someone who truly believes in their art, leads to an inspiring story of artistic expression coming into conflict with capitalistic intentions. This is mirrored in the statement that “money runs faster”, which is directly related to the haunting cry of “four legs good, two legs bad”, from George Orwell’s Animal Farm, a text that is directly quoted here and serves as the lurid but comical foundation for this film. Money Has Four Legs gradually becomes more bleak and uncomfortable as the main character grows more desperate and flirts with criminal actions, but it never loses its comedic edge. The film relentlessly shows the unyielding absurdity of the world occupied by these characters, who are often portrayed as larger-than-life personalities, but never in a way that seems inauthentic or aiming for the low-hanging fruit. Despite the often-frantic nature of the story, there is method to the madness, with the narrative perpetually hinting that it is leading to something meaningful. It functions as a series of episodic moments in the lives of these characters as they work towards resolving their personal quandaries alongside more tangible socio-cultural issues, and eventually converges in a tense, climactic crescendo, in which both the surreal comedy and unnerving social commentary intersect. Money Has Four Legs manoeuvres through the depths of Myanmar’s working class, and delivers an awe-inspiring story of overcoming adversity, as well as a brutal exposé of some disconcerting truths that serve as the foundation for this harrowing but brilliant satire.