×

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.

Popular on Variety

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

  • Editorial use onlyMandatory Credit: Photo by

    Richard Williams, 'Who Framed Roger Rabbit' Animator, Dies at 86

    Renowned animator Richard Williams, best known for his work on “Who Framed Roger Rabbit,” died Friday at his home in Bristol, England, Variety has confirmed. He was 86. Williams was a distinguished animator, director, producer, author and teacher whose work has garnered three Oscars and three BAFTA Awards. In addition to his groundbreaking work as [...]

  • Instinct

    Locarno Film Review: 'Instinct'

    Now that “Game of Thrones” has finally reached its conclusion, releasing its gifted international ensemble into the casting wilds, will Hollywood remember just what it has in Carice van Houten? It’s not that the statuesque Dutch thesp hasn’t been consistently employed since her startling 2006 breakout in Paul Verhoeven’s “Black Book,” or even that she’s [...]

  • Good Boys Movie

    Box Office: 'Good Boys' Eyes Best Original Comedy Opening of 2019

    Universal’s “Good Boys” is surpassing expectations as it heads toward an estimated $20.8 million opening weekend at the domestic box office following $8.3 million in Friday ticket sales. That’s well above earlier estimates which placed the film in the $12 million to $15 million range, marking the first R-rated comedy to open at No. 1 [...]

  • Pedro Costa’s 'Vitalina Varela' Wins at

    Pedro Costa’s 'Vitalina Varela' Triumphs at Locarno Film Festival

    The 72nd Locarno Film Festival drew to a close Saturday with Portuguese auteur Pedro Costa’s dark and detached film “Vitalina Varela” coming away with several awards together with superlatives from segments of the hardcore cinephile crowd, including jury president Catherine Breillat. In announcing the Golden Leopard prize for the film, as well as best actress [...]

  • Vitalina Varela

    Locarno Film Review: 'Vitalina Varela'

    Frequently beautiful compositions and the theatrical use of a fierce kind of artifice have long been the hallmarks of Portuguese auteur Pedro Costa, regarded by a small but influential group of aesthetes as one of the great filmmakers of our era. For those in tune with his vision, the director’s films offer an exciting lesson [...]

  • Notre dame

    Locarno Film Review: 'Notre dame'

    Not to be too cynical about it, but might the recent horrific fire in Paris’ cathedral attract audiences to a film in which the gothic gem plays a major role? It’s likely a wiser marketing strategy than promoting the unrelenting silliness of Valerie Donzelli’s oh-so-kooky comedy “Notre dame,” the writer-director-star’s return to contemporary Paris following [...]

  • Nordisk Film & TV Fond Announces

    Nordisk Film & TV Fond Backs Joachim Trier, Ole Bornedal, Yellow Bird

    Nordisk Film & TV Fond has announced three features, two series and a documentary set to receive $1.4m in financing, as well as distribution, dubbing and cultural initiative support recipients. Doing so, it highlights some of the key titles moving forward in the Nordic region. Already backed by the Danish Film Institute’s largest ever grant [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content