Myanmar-born, Taiwan-based director Midi Z’s third feature, Ice Poison (2014), completes a trilogy of intimate portraits of contemporary life in Burma. Combining a sparse narrative with an intimate visual style, the director presents the moral dilemmas that accompany the drastic economic hardship of his homeland. Everything is getting more expensive except for the crops grown by Wang (Wang Shin-hong) and his father (Zhou Cai Chang). The pair sit on the porch and discuss other ways in which they can earn a living in times of such austerity. Wang wants to go and work in the jade mines, but his father is against it, knowing that drug-taking is rife in the profession and insisting that jade mining requires luck.
Wang’s best option is to buy a scooter so he can work as a taxi driver in the neighbouring village. He and his father embark on a long stroll into the settlement to ask friends and colleagues for money, but it would appear hard times have befallen everybody. Wang’s father turns to a moderately wealthy cousin who agrees to sell them his scooter in exchange for their cow, under the proviso that if they fail to meet the payments he will kill it and sell its meat to cover the debt. Equipped with his new mode of income, Wang takes a job as a taxi driver before meeting Sanmei (Wu Ke-xi), a woman returning from China to assist in the burial rights of her grandfather. She’s determined to earn enough money to bring her son over to live with her, taking a job as a drug runner and hiring Wang as her driver.
Naturalistic performances and a deliberately lethargic pace allow Midi Z to construct an engaging portrait of the socioeconomic difficulties of his homeland whilst successfully implicating the audience in Wang and Sanmei’s lives. Both characters represent different forms of the disenfranchisement that has befallen the young inhabitants of Burma, presenting the viewer with a generation in stasis. Burmese life is viewed through the fixed camera of a director who refuses to pander to nostalgia and national reverence, instead presenting a warts and all depiction of reality. Yet there’s also a kinetic energy that accompanies Wang as he rides his scooter, and a frantic vitality that accompanies Sanmei as she sells drugs. Handheld camerawork communicates the social significance of mobility, whilst the muted karaoke bar where the pair amuse themselves and the crystal meth smoke in the air allude to an economically-constructed captivity.
There are no clear villains or antagonists present in Ice Poison. Rather, it’s the oppressive weight of destitution that enshrines these underdeveloped rural areas which forces these characters to perform such desperate and damaging actions. Sanmei’s inability to successfully reintegrate into a society that has fallen behind the curvature of global development makes for a melancholic parable for the difficulties in returning home, as well as the erosion of national identity in a country lagging behind a worldwide march towards absolute homogenisation. A delicately composed ode to his beloved Myanmar, Midi Z’s latest offering deftly illustrates the hopelessness of a country left to implode from within.