Audiences are likely to be drawn to Ice Poison because it's the rare feature film from Myanmar, the South East Asian nation formerly known as Burma that has only recently reemerged on the world stage after decades of isolation. But you won't see the beauty or richness of the Burmese culture that visitors to the popular tourist cities of Yangon or Mandalay get to experience. In fact, director Midi Z—Burmese-born and based in Taiwan—has stated his intentions are deliberately the opposite. He wants to show the grim reality faced by the majority of the population who live in dire poverty in the rural areas, left underdeveloped for over a half century since Burma gained independence from the British.
A farmer and his son face destitution in Lashio, the principal town in the country's northern, China-bordering Shan State. “Everything is more expensive except the vegetables we grow,” says the farmer, who cultivates an arid patch of land in the mountains. He treks down to the town below in order to tap various relatives for a loan, but as everyone he approaches has their own tale of woe, they refuse him. And though a factory owner offers the son a job, the farmer believes he can make more money by getting his son to operate a motor-scooter taxi service. And so he offers to exchange his cow for an old scooter belonging to the factory owner.
This new business venture turns out to be a failure, and Midi Z, who favors long static shots, takes his time to reveal the farmer's increasingly worsening situation, wanting us to feel his characters' pain. The narrative, though, shifts when the young man finally finds a passenger: Sanmei, a Chinese-Burmese woman who's hurrying to her grandfather's deathbed. She eventually performs the last-rites ritual for the dying man, a scene that movingly captures the sustaining power of ancestral traditions. And during a seemingly inconsequential conversation with her mother, we learn about Sanmei's plight: that she's been married off by trickery to a much older man in China and how she would prefer to stay in Burma and earn enough money to take her child back from her in-laws.
Sanmei's mother advises her to return to her husband, telling her that there's no money to be made in Myanmar other than in the illicit and dangerous drug trade. And although there are many references early in the film to Lashio's true economy being rooted in drugs (the film's title is a reference to crystal meth), it isn't until halfway through Ice Poison before the motor-scooter taxi driver is snared into the drug business after the young farmer's son is hired by the determined Sanmei to drive her to various drug drops. This is a stark view of Myanmar, so unrelenting that it could tax the patience of the most empathetic audience member, especially when Sanmei introduces the initially naïve and somewhat dour young man to smoking meth, but Midi Z finds joy even in grimness, as in Sanmei and the farmer's son joyfully singing karoke.
Midi Z avoids setting up villains in this story, though, of course, the drug-dealing operations must come to a bad end. Both Sanmei and the young man become victims of the poisonous “ice,” but when the inevitable reckoning comes, it falls on the poor cow that was left as collateral for the motor scooter. Very early on in the film, we learn that the animal will face slaughter if the farmer doesn't come up with the money to repay the loan. And by this point, those of us accustomed to being shielded from the unpleasant fact that animals are indeed slaughtered for food the world over, will be well advised to look away—not only from the graphic display of violence, but from the excessive symbolism. Cultural differences aside, the climactic, abattoir-set scene is so heavy-handed that it compromises this gloomy film's pretense to realist integrity.
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