Hot on the heels of his 2015 documentary, “Jade Miners,” Taiwan-based Burmese helmer Midi Z (“Ice Poison,” “Poor Folk”) returns with the companion piece “City of Jade,” an absorbing and highly personal essay filmed in a war-torn northern Myanmar where fortune hunters illegally mine the valuable mineral. Filmed in a low-key style that won’t appeal to all viewers, the new pic weaves interesting political and cultural information around the central story of Midi Z reconnecting with his brother, who headed to the mines more than 20 years ago and has barely had contact with his family since. Though a tad overlong and occasionally repetitive, the docu emerges as a solid addition to Midi Z’s ongoing body of work about the state of things in contemporary Myanmar. A strong fest run looks likely following its Berlin world premiere; a Taiwan release is scheduled for late July.
A more audience-friendly experience than “Jade Miners,” a spartan work consisting of just 20 shots over 104 minutes, “City of Jade” carries a notable connection with Midi Z’s breakthrough narrative feature, “Ice Poison” (2014). In that film, a poor young farmer asks his father for permission to leave the land and try his luck in a jade mine; the father refuses because “they take drugs there.” In the opening section of “City,” it’s revealed that Midi Z’s brother, Zhao De-chin, was released from a Mandalay prison in 2010 after serving time for drug abuse. The director, who relocated to Taiwan as a teenager, wrote hundreds of unanswered letters to his brother and now wants answers about those missing years.
The first thing Midi Z learns is that his brother wants to return to the northern state of Kachin and resume his quest for jade. Ongoing conflict and on-and-off ceasefire talks between the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) and government soldiers have forced corporations to abandon operations, leaving the door open for unlicensed individuals to arrive on site and start digging. Casting a “King Solomon’s Mines”-like aura of mystery and the promise of riches, the mining areas of Kachin are collectively known as Jade City.
During the long train journey from Mandalay to Hpakant in Kachin, Midi Z’s voiceover narration maps out what little he knows about Zhao’s missing years and details the sorrow and anguish his family has suffered in the process. Once they’ve negotiated a series of KIA checkpoints, Midi starts asking questions. A fascinating combination of candor and secrecy, Zhao happily discusses some episodes from his colorful past while remaining fairly tight-lipped about family matters. Over time he offers some justification for his reticence to contact relatives, but there’s a lingering sense that the whole story may never be known.
It’s a different matter when it comes to drugs, as Zhao opens up with frank details of his slide into opium addiction. In his view the combination of backbreaking work, constant disappointment and lack of female company makes the drift toward drugs practically inevitable for just about anyone committed to the long haul in Jade City. Though vowing to stay off the stuff, he’s filmed several times in the company of workmates casually smoking opium and popping pills.
Woven through the brothers’ discussions are fascinating and sometimes startling images of daily life at the diggings. The process of pounding earth and rock with only the most basic equipment is seen in all its agonizing monotony. Raids by police and soldiers are a source of constant fear. Tools and motorcycles are routinely confiscated with “penalty” payments required before they’re returned. In one amazing sequence, miners are seen escaping from authorities by clambering down the sheer face of a quarry on a rickety rope ladder before leaping onto a makeshift raft. The point is clearly made that no matter how many miners are arrested or quit in despair, their number will be replaced by waves of Burmese dreaming of a shortcut to riches, and hoping at the very least for relief from desperate financial circumstances.
“City of Jade” provides a look at contemporary Myanmar that’s far removed from the optimist glow surrounding the country’s recent shift toward democracy and reform. Most of this picture is painted by Zhao’s recollections of how Myanmar’s turbulent political history has played a decisive role in the checkered life he’s led. Complementing his views are conversations among fellow miners. Particularly memorable is a brief scene in which workmate U Nein, a farmer with no previous mining experience, is talking on a cell phone to his wife about raising money for their child’s computer training course. These snapshots of Zhao’s team serve the film well, and it’s only a shame that some of their stories aren’t told in greater detail.
Though the documentary includes a little too much footage of miners toiling away, the central sibling dynamic is consistently engaging. Midi Z’s thoughtful narration imparts a strong sense of curiosity and an undercurrent of trepidation as he travels further into a dangerous place with a brother he barely knows. Though he never explicitly expresses remorse or regret, Zhao’s eyes and facial expressions frequently tell a different story. In a telling sequence that says much about him and captures the mindset of so many others who’ve flocked to Jade City, Zhao speaks directly to the hills and earth surrounding him, asking where they hide their jade.
Production notes state Midi Z’s professional equipment was confiscated prior to shooting, forcing him and co-d.p. Wang Fu-ang to rely on domestic gear. The results, visually and aurally, are fine. The non-pro format’s lack of sharpness in extreme wide shots turns out to be a blessing in disguise: Panoramas of the barren, end-of-the-world-like mining area have a slightly hazy, dreamlike quality that’s appropriate for the subject matter. A lovely electronic ambient score by composer Lim Giong is nicely complemented by traditional Burmese songs heavy with lyrics about loss, despair and dreams of a better future. All other technical aspects are on the money.