'Jade Miners' ('Wa Yu Shi De Ren'): Rotterdam Review

Courtesy of International Film Festival Rotterdam
Long takes of languorous workers with a tragic finale.

Myanmar-born, Taiwan-based filmmaker Midi Z continues to probe his birth country's ongoing trauma with a documentary about laborers digging for gems on dangerous terrain.

Having finally attained his long-deserved breakthrough last year with the Berlinale-bowing, Golden Horses-nominated narco-drama Ice Poison, Midi Z 's follow-up is a slight step sideways. A feature-length documentary comprising just 20 shots during its 104-minute runtime, Jade Miners is an austere piece illustrating the titular laborers at work and at rest: they dig, they eat, they sleep, and then it's back to some more drilling and digging again.

The repetition might be an acquired taste. But as an authentic representation of the miners, the approach is effective if not even essential. Working in terrible conditions and amidst political instability - the illegal and unregulated quarries are located in Kachin State, where rebels are still waging war against the Myanmese government - the men are toiling tediously with just the faint hope of unearthing that one big gem which will change their lives forever. So it is, therefore, that they tolerate living by rote, with only the banter and the odd row spicing up their existence.

Devoid of voiceovers and on-screen text introducing the workers and their terrain, Z's documentary is destined for much more limited exposure than his three previous features. A commission from Taiwan's Public Television Service, the film received its world premiere at International Film Festival Rotterdam, its programmers being firm advocates of the young filmmaker's work ever since they granted him a competition berth in 2011for his first film, Return to Burma. While bookings at indie-friendly and documentary-driven programs are certainly possible - its presence in festivals across Asia is probably more than guaranteed - travelling beyond the region will probably be a challenge.

Read More 'Bitter Lake': Rotterdam Review

While not exactly a project born completely out of his own initiative, Jade Miners could somehow be seen as a spin-off to Z's oeuvre, especially Ice Poison - in which a patriarch refuses to let his son go to work as a gem-hunter because he deems the mines a den of drugs and worse misdeeds. So this is what the young man (who eventually winded up a smalltime crook in the city in that film) would have missed - and ironically it's the miners' turn here to talk about crimes infesting the world beyond their lives, as they chatter about each other being too dim-witted to be a hoodlum or a hustler.

All this talk takes place in a scene where they are setting off for another night of illegal work in the dark, their animated demeanor perhaps the result of anticipation or anxiety of what lies ahead. It's perfectly obvious that death and destruction easily beckons over just one wrong drill of a loose stone, this mix of tedium and suppressed terror relayed well through the depictions of the men at work. While credit goes to Z and his long-time collaborator Wang Shin-hong, miner Zaw Moe has turned in surprisingly adept footage for sequences set in places deemed no-go areas for the film crew.

Read More First Local Social Media Site Launches in Myanmar

Expounding and expanding on the desperate survival strategies which he outlined in Return to Burma, Poor Folk and Ice Poison, Z provides a harsh reality stripped of melodrama (if there ever was some in his minimalist films, that is) but imbued with the same fatalistic view on life. They debate about the quality of the rice in their very rough meals; they listen blankly to songs about a musician complaining about his fame and the jetset lifestyle it entails. 

Z's solidarity for the men shine through, however, an empathy locking the viewer's attention to the unfolding lives of these Myanmese Sisyphuses. One feels for their possibly distant hopes of striking it rich, as they shoulder a burden markedly different from the stereotypes of poverty we are probably used to - in one of the funnier sequences in the film, a miner talks to his family on a cellphone and hear of his wife talking about a good harvest in the fields, his son needing more money for a computer class in school, and his daughter simply screaming, "Buy me stuff! Earrings!" With this, Z has concisely illustrated how Myanmar has changed - but with the film's tragedy-strikes finale, he also powerfully shows how budding optimism could easily be vanquished, and that life is different but also the same.

Venue: International Film Festival Rotterdam (Spectrum Premieres)

Production companies: Public Television Service Foundation, Seashore Image Productions

Director: Midi Z

Screenwriters: Midi Z, Wu Pei-chi

Producers: Wang Shin-hung, Isabella Ho, Midi Z

Cinematographers: Midi Z, Wang Shin-hong, Zaw Moe

Editors: Midi Z, Lin Sheng-wen

Sound designer: Chou Cheng

International Sales: Seashore Image Productions

In Burmese

No rating; 104 minutes