×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Berlin Film Review: ‘City of Jade’

Burmese helmer Midi Z's highly personal docu shines a fascinating light on illegal jade mining in Myanmar.

With:
Zhao De-chin, U Aung Kyaw, U Nein, U Zaw Tun, U Zaw Win, U Zaw Moe, U Kyw Ya, Wang Shin-hong. (Burmese dialogue)

Official Site: https://www.facebook.com/SeashoreImage/?fref=nf

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.

Berlin Film Review: ‘City of Jade’

Reviewed online, Adelaide, 14 Feb. 2016. (In Berlin Film Festival – Forum.) Running time: 98 MIN. (Original title: “Fei cui zhi cheng”)

Production: (Documentary – Taiwan-Myanmar) A Taiwan Public Television Service Foundation, Seashore Image Productions presentation of a Seashore Image Productions, Myanmar Montage Productions production with support of Doha Film Institute. (International sales: Seashore Image, Taipei.) Produced by Wang Shin-hong, Midi Z, Isabella Ho, Lin Sheng-wen. Executive producer, Jessie Shih.

Crew: Directed by Midi Z. Written by Midi Z, Wu Pei-chi. Camera (color, HD), Midi Z, Wang Fu-ang; editors, Midi Z, Lin Sheng-wen; music, Lim Giong; sound (Dolby 5.1), Tu Duu-chih, Wu Shu-yao; line producers, Chen Yi-ju, Zhao Chin-tun, Zhao De-chin, U Zaw Moe, U Zaw Tun.

With: Zhao De-chin, U Aung Kyaw, U Nein, U Zaw Tun, U Zaw Win, U Zaw Moe, U Kyw Ya, Wang Shin-hong. (Burmese dialogue)

More Film

  • Alain Berliner To Direct Cannes-Set ‘Second

    ‘Ma Vie en Rose’s’ Alain Berliner Directs Star Cast in ‘Second to Nun’ (EXCLUSIVE)

    Page Three Media and Artemis Productions, which backed “The Danish Girl,” announced in Cannes “Second to Nun,” a new feature from Golden Globe winning director Alain Berliner. Berliner’s decades-ahead-of-its-time “Ma Vie en Rose,” the tale of a young transgender girl with dreams of growing into a mature woman and marrying the boy next door, was [...]

  • Artist Andrew Levitas Tackles Corporate Greed

    Artist Andrew Levitas Tackles Corporate Greed in Johnny Depp Starring 'Minamata'

    Andrew Levitas has carved out a unique place in the art world, having used his considerable skills across multiple creative platforms. A filmmaker, painter, sculptor, producer, writer, actor and photographer, Levitas is also the founder of Metalwork Pictures, a media production company that develops and produces original content, including his 2014 directorial debut, “Lullaby,” as [...]

  • Oliver Laxe

    Cannes: ‘Fire Will Come’s’ Oliver Laxe on Classicism, Avant-Guard, Egos

    CANNES  —    Spain’s Oliver Laxe returns to Cannes for the third time with“Fire Will Come” (O Que Arde), competing in Un Certain Regard— the first time a Galician-language film is selected for Cannes. He has pedigree. His first time round, in 2010, Laxe snagged a Fipresci nod for his Directors’ Fortnight title “You All [...]

  • Gael Garcia Bernal'La Belle Epoque' premiere,

    Gael Garcia Bernal on Cannes Out of Competition Screening ‘Chicuarotes,’ Hope for Mexico

    CANNES  —  There’s a scene right at the beginning of “Chicuarotes,” Gael García Bernal’s second movie as a director, where Cagalera and Moleteco, two teens from the humble San Gregorio Atlapulco district of Mexico City, board a bus in clown’s makeup, and launch into a clumsy comedic sketch. Maybe because it’s delivered in San Gregorio [...]

  • Italy's Notorious Pictures on Buying Spree

    Cannes: Italy's Notorious Pictures on Buying Spree Takes 'Vivarium,' Ups Production (EXCLUSIVE)

    Italian distribution, production, and exhibition company Notorious Pictures is on a buying spree at the Cannes Film Market where they’ve acquired four high-profile titles, including Jesse Eisenberg and Imogen Poots sci-fi-fier “Vivarium,” which world-premiered in Critics’ Week. On the production side the expanding outfit has teamed up with Belgium’s Tarantula Productions on Islamic terrorism thriller [...]

  • Marco Bellocchio The Traitor Cannes

    Director Marco Bellocchio Talks About Cannes Mafia Drama 'The Traitor'

    Cannes veteran Marco Bellocchio’s vast body of work spans from “Fists in the Pockets” (1965) to “Sweet Dreams,” which launched at Directors’ Fortnight in 2016. The auteur known for psychodramas and for bringing the complexities of Italian history, and hypocrisy, to the big screen is back, this time in competition, with “The Traitor,” a biopic [...]

  • Director Tudor Giurgiu on Transylvania Film

    Director Tudor Giurgiu on Transilvania Film Festival Opening Film ‘Parking’

    CANNES–A poet, a romantic, and a stranger in a strange land, Adrian is a Romanian immigrant working as a night watchman at a car dealership in Cordoba. After leaving his old life behind, he falls in love with a Spanish singer who offers him a shot at reinvention. But when a money-making scheme by his [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content