Ice Poison: Berlin Review

Another deliberately paced but largely engaging portrait of the grim economic and social realities of modern Burma.

Burmese director Midi Z’s latest proves the third time is lucky by turning in his strongest feature yet.

With just a few features under his belt, Burmese-Taiwanese filmmaker Midi Z has developed a signature style for his intimate portraits of modern Burmese life. Following Poor Folk and Return to Burma, the director’s latest is a similar look at the poverty, drug abuse and aimlessness that plague his homeland. Ice Poison shows a marked maturation of Midi Z as a filmmaker, and though he still lets his hallmark long shots get the better of the material from time to time, the film is his strongest to date. Festivals that showed interest in his earlier features are sure to repeat that interest here, and limited art house release, particularly in Asia, isn’t completely out of the question.

Set in a small town best known for its opium crop, the story such as it is begins with an anonymous young vegetable farmer (Wang Shin-Hong) and his father (Zhou Cai Chang) discussing the state of the agricultural trade they’ve relied on their whole lives. With industrial farming bearing down on them and making it increasingly difficult to make a living, they discuss some of their options for the coming season. It’s a typical Midi Z segment, with a still camera and naturalistic performances as the two men talk about seeking help from friends and family in the city.

Not much comes of that, as everyone father and son speak to decry the rules, regulations and government/business decrees that are coming into effect -- and in many ways destroying farmers and average workers’ livelihoods. Their last hope is Uncle Wang (Li Shang Da), who takes the father’s prized cow as down payment for a motorbike that the son -- now officially the Driver -- can use as a taxi. If no more money is forthcoming, the cow will be sold to the slaughterhouse.

To this point Ice Poison is a measured (some would say slow), carefully composed and somewhat rambling narrative that deftly illustrates this side of Burma right now. Details are dropped into meandering conversations that unfold within Midi Z’s observational approach. The film really starts to take shape when the Driver finally picks up a fare: Sanmei (Midi Z regular Wu Ke-Xi), a local woman living in China back in town to bury her grandfather. Like many Burmese, Sanmei left for greener pastures, but is desperate to find a way to get her son and stay so as to get out of her arranged marriage to an older Chinese man. Though hardly an unexpected turn, Sanmei ropes the Driver into helping her out as a courier for her cousin, who deals a meth-like drug called ice and who is too closely scrutinized to do his own dirty work.

One of Ice Poison’s greatest strengths is its dispassionate tone; Midi Z’s screenplay never condemns or condones the driver and Sanmei’s decisions, and the casual acceptance of options like smuggling are all the more tragic and infuriating for it. Seemingly throwaway scenes -- like one where Sanmei’s mother tells her she should consider herself fortunate to have a husband that doesn’t beat her -- gracefully crystallize the state of life in Burma; that Sanmei and the driver choose to get wasted on the product they peddle is no surprise. Wu and Wang are both wholly believable as young people frustrated with what they see as a lack of a future, and balance despair and resigned action to a perfect pitch. Though cinematographer Fan Sheng Siang’s camerawork is rich and fluid, more than a few segments belabor their point, and the necessity of the final closing shot is debatable, ultimately Ice Poison demonstrates a heretofore unseen, and welcome, level of accessibility to Midi Z.

Producer: Midi Z

Director: Midi Z

Cast: Wu Ke-Xi, Wang Shin-Hong, Zhou Cai Chang, Li Shang Da, Tang Shu Lan

Screenwriter: Midi Z

Executive producer: Patrick Mao Huang

Director of Photography: Fan Sheng Siang

Production Designer: Zhao Zhi-Tang

Music: Sonic Dead Horse

Costume designer: Dan Ka Ming Lwin

Editor: Lin Sheng Wen, Midi Z

No rating, 94 minutes