Burmese director Midi Z latest film is a socially conscious remark on the two options facing the poor – both of which risk your life. One is to risk breaking your body with labour, amidst endless hours working for a pittance. The other is to risk it taking or trafficking drugs. As South Asia seeks to hammer down on the growing drug epidemic, Ice Poison takes an experimental approach to the influence economics play in people’s choices.
The film primarily follows two stories which intertwine. The first is that of young farmer (Shin-Hong Wang), whose father trades the last cow for a scooter, hoping to make ends meet as a taxi driver, where he meets Ke-Hsi Wu. As the allure of the city exudes across the outer regions, the village knows of the detrimental vices which lurk within – chiefly drugs. After allying with Ke-Hsi Wu, a young woman frequently travelling, the pair find an arrangement which benefits one another as Ke-His Wu finds a means to transport her ‘packages’ and the young farmer gets a slice of life.
You’d be forgiven if you mistook the set-up of Ice Poison as a gritty documentary, as its reliance on relative unknowns and earthy cinematography suggests a docudrama. In reality, this experimental film slowly (very slowly) builds on the pair’s relationship. The banality of the filmmaking is purposeful, meant to emulate the drabness of reality for these farmers and workers. With no expressive demonstrations or grand displays of emotion, Midi Z’s film raises questions but potentially closes eyes.
There’s no question the film is a tricky one to get into; there are slow burners, and then there is the pacing of Ice Poison, which never injects momentum or melodrama, but at the cost of an initial grip for the audience. The narrative flows as it naturally would, with the filmmaking following – there are little to no cuts outside of scene transitions and interactions are allowed to carry out without interruption.
Even for the dedicated, the mundane nature of the topics drifts, and while the conversation does flow, not all aspects are required for the storytelling to affect. The cinematography is unforgivingly bleak – often with long-held shots, where colour is a rarity. Reflective, Ice Poison has next to no score and relishes the quieter moments. These are often the film’s tighter sequences, devoid of prattle or filler and merely showcasing the human condition. Here is where both Shin-Wong Wang and Ke-Xi Wu’s performances at the heart of the film achieve the minutest fix of the drama we have oh so craved.
Much of Midi Z’s stance towards the crackdown on drugs is frank, never commodifying or vilifying those who trade in narcotics or ‘ice’. Instead, Ice Poison offers up an explanation, rather than an excuse: that those choosing to earn a living this way are far from villains, but pushed into the situations, primarily out of poverty. Playing directly into the hands of Midi Z, he draws the eye to a part of the world many have never desired to watch, and yet, even a comparative examination of the futility of the ‘American Dream’ is ironically thrust upon them in the rural areas. Even in what appears to be a region-centric film, ideas surrounding hard work and working up from nothing seem to be ever reaching.
Authenticity is without question, but the detail in the monotony is Ice Poison’s principle issue – and it’s a large one. The vacant visuals may evoke a genuine documentary aesthetic, with a refreshing refutation of artificial creation, but it swings wildly into this decision. It quickly becomes tedious (and at points frustrating) as even the moments of genuine sincerity or emotional outlet are dampened to further impress upon the dreariness of the situation.