Simple, direct and involving, “Ice Poison” shows how the desire to escape harsh economic and social circumstances slowly drives two young Burmese people toward selling and using life-wrecking drugs. Continuing his examination of the big picture in his homeland through intimate portraits of those affected by displacement and poverty, helmer Midi Z. (“Return to Burma,” “Poor Folk”) has delivered his strongest work to date. Though some of the director’s trademark long takes here could still do with a nip and tuck, the pic is assured of a lengthy fest run and is worth the attention of specialty broadcasters. “Ice” will break into the commercial realm upon its mid-July release in Taiwan.
The film is set is Lashio, a market town with a large Chinese population in Shan state, where the overwhelming majority of Myanmar’s opium poppies are grown. In the hills outside Lashio, an unnamed young vegetable farmer (Wang Shin-hong) and his unnamed father (Zhou Cai Chang) are facing grim economic realities: Production is high, but prices from middlemen are far too low to make ends meet. The son’s answer is to leave the land and work in a jade mine. After refusing permission because “they take drugs there,” the father decides to ask friends and relatives for financial help.
During an otherwise fruitless visit to town, where tales of harsh new trade regulations and government taxes are told, father and son strike a deal with Uncle Wang (Li Shang Da). With his only cow as deposit, the son (hereafter referred to as the driver) will take possession of the uncle’s motor scooter and become a taxi driver. If further repayments are not made on time, the beast goes to slaughter.
With an observational camera placed at a distance and very few closeups inserted in between long takes, viewers are given the sense of sitting in on conversations about the state of things as seen by ordinary Burmese and Chinese-Burmese who just want to make a decent living. The quiet talk and the absence of impassioned speech making or bold dramatic flourishes won’t appeal to everyone, but for audiences in tune with the rhythm of Midi Z.’s realistic approach to storytelling, the results will prove engrossing.
Unsurprisingly, the scooter-taxi business turns out to be no easy money-making proposition. Just another face in a pack swarming around passengers at Lashio’s bus stop, the driver is unable to score a fare until the arrival of Sanmei (Wu Ke-xi), a young woman returning home to bury her grandfather. Through plausible circumstances bringing the driver and Sanmei into further contact, it is revealed she has a child and a loveless marriage in Yunnan after having been tricked into leaving for “work” in China as a teenager.
As friendship and a hint of romance develop, Sanmei proposes a plan to make money desperately required by the driver and facilitate her burning desire to leave her husband and return permanently to Myanmar with her child. With a matter-of-factness that speaks loudly about the realities facing many people in developing countries, Sanmei suggests they become couriers for her unnamed cousin (Yang Shi Sun), an ice dealer whose activities have recently come under close scrutiny from authorities.
Neither condemning nor condoning the path taken by the driver and Sanmei, Midi Z.’s intelligent screenplay instead views it as a common and expected outcome in a place with limited opportunities and few hopes of prosperity through legitimate avenues. The message is powerfully driven home in scenes such as Sanmei discussing life and options with her mother (Yang Shu Lan), according to whom Sanmei ought to be grateful that her husband doesn’t beat her and should simply accept her unhappy lot in life.
Relatively little screen time is dedicated to the driver and Sanmei getting high and suffering the inevitable consequences; the film is mainly concerned with how they both arrived at such a point. The helmer’s low-key, drawn-out approach and the cast members’ impressively naturalistic performances serve this purpose very well most of the time. Aside from a small number of scenes that linger too long after dramatic points have been made, and a longish second sequence at the bus terminal that seems surplus to requirements, the story is consistently interesting and stimulating.
The first of Midi Z.’s features not also shot by the helmer, “Ice Poison” is elegantly lensed by experienced d.p. Fan Sheng-siang. The decision to proceed without a commissioned music score pays off handsomely; silences are used to telling effect throughout, and a couple of scenes featuring karaoke performances add to the emotional impact. Other technical aspects are solid on a modest budget.