Austin Asian American Film Festival is back and a plethora of diverse films from all over Asia screen this weekend. I had the pleasure to watch my home country Taiwan’s drama “Ice Poison,” also the country’s official entry to the 87th Academy Awards’ Best Foreign Language Film category.
Review by ChinLin Pan
Going into Marchesa Theater, I hoped for two things: bonding with and redemption for our crystal meth-addicted protagonists. By the end of the film, I felt like I received neither, but I’m getting ahead of myself here.
Born in Myanmar (also known as Burma) and based in Taiwan, writer/director Midi Z’s “Ice Poison” takes place in poor rural village of Lashio in Myanmar. A farmer and his son (played by Wang Shin-Hong) face destitution because the harvest in the mountain fields is poor. The farmer makes a deal with a factory owner to deposit his cow in exchange for an old scooter—so the son can start a scooter taxi business. If they cannot pay back the factory owner in six months, then he butchers the cow and sells the meat. Good? Good. Done deal.
However, the son doesn’t fare well competing with other taxi drivers. The film then shifts to a woman he meets, Sanmei (played by Wu Ke-Xi) who escaped an arranged marriage in China. Sanmei rushes to see her grandfather on his deathbed. When he passes away, Sanmei realizes she needs to start making a living to survive and someday bring her son to Burma.
But here’s the thing about working in Burma: In Burma, you either work in the jade mines or you sell drugs. For Sanmei, the decision was easy: sell crystal meth by day and sing karaoke by night. The farmer’s son—am I the only one who was upset that we never got his name?—gets involved when Sanmei hires him to drive her around as she sells the drugs.
They both become addicted, and without giving away any spoilers, let’s just say Midi Z chose realistic paths for these characters, though they exhibit no degree of character development.
I am no film expert, but I need to rant about Midi Z’s choice of camera and angle shots. He plays cool and aloof with the camera from our protagonists: we rarely see close-up shots and get intimate with our characters, which just seems unusual after a certain point watching the film. Long takes and wide shots galore. As the audience, you feel like you are following the farmer’s son and Sanmei and witnessing their hardships, rather than experiencing their hardships. I cannot sympathize with them, but I can pity them. But at the same time, this could have been Midi Z’s purpose all along. Midi Z sheds light on the nature of Burma’s economy and how people in these villages work a lot to scrape by.
The story itself was depressing. The pace of the film felt dragged. But thinking on it retrospectively, Midi Z reveals few scenes of the farmer’s son and Sanmei getting high. Instead, he devotes most of the film to showing us how they get to that point.
If sad, realistic films aren’t your thing, I don’t recommend this film. However, all film buffs should see this film and acknowledge Midi Z’s deliberate artistic decisions and the actors’ natural performances as our impoverished protagonists.
“Ice Poison” has travelled to many film festivals, including Berlin, Edinburgh, Tribeca, Moscow, Montreal Durban and La Rochelle, France. The film released in Taiwan back in July. This is also Midi Z’s third feature film after “Return to Burma” and “Poor Folk.”