“You know only too well that in Burma if we want to make money you either go to work in jade mines, but you can’t afford the trip, or you sell drugs” according to the cynical heroine of Midi Z’s Ice Poison (冰毒, Bīngdú) seducing an equally desperate farmer in an effort free herself from patriarchal oppression and reclaim her son from the family who bought her and refuse to let her go.
In an ironic touch, the film begins and ends in fire as an unnamed young farmer (Wang Shin-hong) and his father (Zhou Cai Chang) burn their fields and harvest their crop only to lament their slender pickings. This year’s harvest has been poor and, according to the young man “everything is getting more expensive except the vegetables we grow”. Left with few options the old man and his son walk towards the town, calling in at various houses along the way gingerly asking for a loan to help make ends meet but everyone is in a similar position. The men of working age have all gone away to find employment, an older woman explaining that her husband is on a construction site while her son who returned from abroad has only been able to find work on a poppy farm and he won’t be paid until after the harvest is finished. Another woman explains that her son, unlike others, wanted to do things properly by applying for a work visa for Malaysia but was cheated by the broker, who then bribed the police when they reported him. Her son now intends to stay and get married which, perhaps surprisingly, she thinks is irresponsible when there’s no money and his older brother is still a bachelor. The last man relates the sorry tale of his son who was apparently poisoned in Thailand after spurning the advances of two local ladies and has since lost his mind.
Shifting to his plan B, the old man plans to pawn his cow to borrow a scooter so his son can earn some money with a bike taxi, first asking the scooter’s owner for a loan but once again informed he’s strapped himself because one of his employees ran off and his China deal fell through. Rather than the scooter, he offers the young farmer a job, but they ultimately opt for a bloody bargain, placing the cow as a deposit under the agreement that if they can’t pay back the money for the scooter in a few months’ time the oil merchant may have it slaughtered though it breaks the old man’s heart.
The young farmer had wanted to go and work in the jade mines, but his father discourages him not just because there’s war in the north but because everyone in the mines takes drugs and if he goes and gets himself hooked on meth where will they be then? The bike taxi business, however, does not exactly take off. The young man finds himself at the back of a crowd of pushier drivers literally blocking the exits of the buses that roll into town mobbing those attempting to disembark, but with such crushing poverty all around him it’s perhaps incongruous to assume many want to spend money on speedy transport. He finally manages to get a passenger, Sanmei (Wu Ke-xi), after realising she is also from the Chinese minority, driving her to a village where, it transpires, her grandfather lies dying, apparently waiting for her arrival and the burying clothes she brings with her from their ancestral home in China. The rites completed, she should go home but Sanmei doesn’t want to. As she tells her mother, she was tricked into a marriage to a much older man whose family are oppressively possessive, unwilling to let her bring her son to meet his grandmother for fear she wouldn’t come back.
Hinting both at the crushing despair and the patriarchal strictures of their society, Sanmei’s mother tells her that she’s better off in China especially as her husband apparently treats her well enough when there are women who marry for love only to suffer domestic violence. But Sanmei keeps repeating that he’s not the man she loves and so she does not want to stay with him. What she wants is to reclaim her child and live an independent life in Burma where, she feels, there are better opportunities for making money. She’s determined to talk to her shady cousin, ignoring her mother’s advice not to get involved with him because he’s a notorious drug dealer. Her cousin indeed tells her that there’s money to be made for those who are bold in peddling “ice”, apparently the only the remaining marketable commodity. Before long she’s smoking it herself, roping in the young farmer who’s taken to making courier deliveries in the absence of passengers, telling him he’s simply ferrying her around and can claim plausible deniability of what it is she herself is transporting.
Is Sanmei merely manipulating him, seducing the farmer to claim her new life in exploiting his boredom and despair, or was there perhaps a genuine connection born of mutual hopelessness that their poverty and impotence eventually destroys? Shooting in his own hometown, Midi Z paints a bleak picture of contemporary Burma as a scorched paradise in which the only sense of possibility lies in escape, employment abroad or drug-fuelled oblivion at home. Captured with documentary realism, Ice Poison eventually consumes our two heroes but its ultimate victim is a forgotten and unexpected one, nature dismembered at the hands of cruel and indifferent humanity.
International trailer (English subtitles)