19 April 2014 | shaneslater88
Engaging story with both regional specificity and universal thematic resonance
'Ice Poison' is the latest film by Burmese director Midi Z. Featuring a cast of relative unknowns, this socially conscious drama maintains a remarkable feeling of authenticity from start to finish. At the heart of the story is a pair of individuals trying to make ends meet in the tough environs of rural Burma, with the dangerous (but enticing) city looming in the distance.
The film begins on a farm, with a farmer and his son harvesting their latest crop. After this latest haul, they discuss the challenges associated with their profession, which is no longer as profitable as it once was. They decide to explore other options and upon conversations with other farmers in the village, they decide that the son must start a scooter taxi service. This city-bound service promises greater income but it also comes at a price. As the elder villagers are fully aware, the city is filled with vice (particularly drugs like crystal meth) that often end up attracting the youth. As such, the son is warned to stay away from these distractions. Unfortunately, he's eventually lured into the drug trade (and consumption) after his taxi service proves unsuccessful.
From the onset, it's clear that the director is going for a docudrama feel with this film. The first act involves many lengthy conversations between the villagers, delivered in a relaxed everyday tone. There's no actorly expressiveness or showmanship, far removed from the usual expectations of "performance". Likewise, the direction and cinematography is purposefully drab, conveying the routine banality of the setting. As a result, these traits manage to simultaneously work to the film's benefit and detriment.
Working in the film's favour for example, is the fascinating plot that follows the son's exploits with the other main protagonist - a young woman who he transports home for her grandfather's funeral. Both of them are disenchanted with their lives and decide to strike up a partnership to sell crystal meth (the "ice poison" in the film's title) throughout the city. With his taxi service, they have a ready delivery system on hand, while her worldly experience (she has just returned from living in China) proves useful in the marketplace. It's a classic situation of a convenient buddy alliance, but it never feels contrived. Indeed, the tone that film establishes suggests that such partnerships could almost be commonplace in this world. The boredom displayed (half-hearted karaoke scenes are the film's only moments of genuine levity) would certainly drive anyone mad.
This authentic boredom is also the source of some of the film's main issues. The dull visuals and slow plotting are impressively devoid of artifice, but it also strains the audience interest. Even the most emotionally heightened scenes (the grandfather's funeral for example) are played with such a matter-of-fact attitude that it limits the film's dramatic power. The lead actor's placid acting doesn't help either.
Reflecting on the overall achievement however, Midi Z. successfully accomplishes his goals(portraying these people and their world with honesty and truth), cinematic flare be damned. The style may prove tedious at times, but the plot has enough depth in content and theme to reward those willing to go along for the ride. For me, I found it to be an engaging exploration of the ideals of "The American Dream". As such, its themes are both region-specific and universal. Evidently, anywhere you go, you'll find that the struggle is real.
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