Zayar is a young boy who fled Burma — renamed by its military government as Myanmar in 1989 — with his sister and finds himself resettled in the U.S. after an arduous journey. Yet his new life isn’t easy. He doesn’t fit in at his school. And he is haunted by traumatic memories of his escape: the gunfire, the violence, and most of all, leaving his mother behind.
Those memories continue to haunt him, as he struggles with the racism and taunts of his school peers and his own internal trauma and anger. But when his friction with his bullies comes to a head, all that Zayar is holding inside threatens to explode, and he must decide what kind of person he wants to be.
Writer-director Chriz Naing’s sensitive, heart-rending drama captures the difficulties in crossing cultures, especially when the memories of leaving a homeland behind are fraught with sadness, pain and trauma. It’s a heavy burden for anyone to carry, but it especially is difficult for children and young people who are displaced across the globe. Left with little social support and few loved ones and dropped in a strange culture, they must fend for themselves while carrying a haunting psychological weight.
The film captures Zayar in his new world, with beautifully intimate camerawork and sound design taking us inside his head, even when he doesn’t say very much at school or home. Sounds seems to trigger his trouble memories, and visions of leaving his mother behind in the crossfire of bullets seem to trail after him.
He finds some sense of home or belonging at a local Buddhist temple — as well as some way of making sense of his troubles — but his daily life is still a lonely, sometimes harrowing process to get through, especially when he is bullied for his race and outsider status.
Young actor Yo Kwee, who plays Zayar, ably portrays the heaviness that his character carries within him, as well as the resulting isolation and alienation that separate him from the rest of his world. Much of the performance is held internally, with a haunted, recessive quality that nevertheless hints at a troubled internal life. But when he must confront the bullies who taunt him, all the pain and anger he’s held onto rises to the surface, threatening to emerge into violence.
“Zayar” is an invaluable look into the experiences of the largest refugee group resettled in the U.S., a segment that rarely is chronicled on film or in media. With its assured craftsmanship and excellent writing, this culturally specific narrative creates a compelling world where the coiled violence of bullies co-exists with the serenity of a Buddhist temple, building competing moral and emotional tensions that echo within us all.
Zayar is pulled between peace and violence, or good and evil, and he’s experienced both poles in his life. But with mindfulness and intention, he gets to choose where he stands — though making that choice again and again is never easy, especially when the weight of unspeakable memories can’t easily be left behind.