The Monotony of Poverty: ‘Return to Burma’ Review 《歸來的人》影評

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KTV; Source: Return to Burma

For me this film doesn’t work for completely the opposite reason that another film by this director, Ice Poison, didn’t work. Whereas Ice Poison is centred around the rather hackneyed trope of “young man led astray by damaged young girl”, this film is rather unclear in its voice and direction.

The film is underlaid with a pseudo-neo-colonial gaze, as much of it is pure exposition aimed at a Taiwanese audience, what people earn in relation to wages in Taiwan, what the different smuggled Chinese imports cost etc. This is not an unworthy goal, given that South East Asian workers are reported to have faced substantial discrimination and exploitation when employed in Taiwan and China, but I’m not sure if this makes the film interesting beyond its Taiwanese context. Otherwise the kind of poverty that they suffer, although awful, is rather unexceptional: the struggle to find work and support oneself and one’s family.

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Temple; Source: Return to Burma

Not much happens in the film and I felt that, although the director might be aspiring to capture the fatalistic outlook of the characters in Hou Hsiao-hsien’s films in the face of tragedy, the tragedies seemed too distant from the core of the film to give the impassivity of the protagonist any gravity in contrast. We hear his sister was kidnapped and forced to marry an older Chinese man, but she’s resigned herself to her circumstances and is wealthier than the rest of her family now, with two kids that she loves (interestingly Ice Poison shows us a woman who makes a different choice, in that she runs away from her husband in China and, long story short, she ends up in jail for drug-dealing (moral lesson: stay with your kidnapper?)). While I might criticize that sentiment, it underlines the desperate poverty of many of the people featured in his films. It’s also a common trope in the Chinese anti-modernist tradition, in which writers like Shen Cong-wen suggested that though tradition might seem overly exploitative or repressive of a certain group or class (i.e. women), the discretionary power inherent in traditional social relations tended to mitigate this harshness in everyday practice and that “modernity” could actually be more repressive in its lack of this discretionary power (see his short story 〈蕭蕭〉).

There is no real exploration of the political state of Myanmar (Burma) in the film (it occurs in the run-up to substantial political change) and the regime is largely invisible, other than the rather amusing pro-government songs that play, praising the new congress and a vague reference to strict anti-smuggling measures. This in a way reinforces the neo-colonial idea that the film is aimed solely at creating “Taiwanese guilt” for the way they take advantage of this poverty, which, although it may have some merit, doesn’t do anything to address any of the domestic causes of this poverty. Nor is there any exploration of the ethnic conflicts that have surfaced in the country over the last decades. This means that the telling of this story of poverty is so universal, that it would have had to take a more interesting narrative line or adopted a more interesting technique to keep it from being a rather monotonous retelling of what we’ve all heard before. I almost feel that Ice Poison was an attempt at breaking from this monotony by staging a romance, it’s just a pity that it felt so… staged.

 

 

Film Review ‘Ice Poison’: All the right ingredients but no magic 《冰毒》影評

Ice-PoisonThis film is set in and around Lashio in Northern Shan State in Myanmar, a region populated by many ethnic Chinese. Some are later immigrants, while others are remnants of the retreating Nationalist Army – posted there as guerrilla forces after the main force retreated to Taiwan. Conflict between rebels here and the Myanmar central government spilled over into Yunnan province recently when a bomb dropped by a Myanmar Air Force plane killed some villagers there.

The film deals with a very current issue as the civil war in Myanmar between government forces and northern ethnic rebel groups continue. China has been struggling to outdo the US in wooing the government and the main opposition ahead of general elections there next year, although illegal border trade with China is believed to be the main supply line for rebels in the north. Chinese business people are also responsible for a lot of the illegal logging and mining taking place in the region (despite getting permits from northern rebels, many of them are aware that logging is illegal in Myanmar).

This had the unfortunate effect of raising my expectations for the film, as despite being located in a fascinating part of the world, I felt that the “love story” wasn’t done in a convincing way. The female protagonist returns from China where she has married a substantially older man, from whom she seemingly wants to escape. She travels home for the death of her grandfather, taking him funeral clothes from his hometown in Yunnan. She is driven home by a farmer-turned motorcycle driver, who is not very successful at his new job. She meets him again when he takes a message to her from the town, and eventually she proposes that they go into the meth business together, as her cousin is in the business and can set up deliveries for her. They fall in love while working together and both start using from their own supply. Eventually they get caught on a delivery and the male lead flees the scene, leaving her with all the blame. He then flees back to his rural village and appears to be in great mental trauma. The process of the female lead stripping the male lead of his innocence was portrayed in montage style, so we end up feeling distanced from the process which would have drawn us in and made us identify with the two of them. The girl’s life in China is never really presented in a way that allows us to understand in a visual sense why she comes back and what motivates her to get involved in the drug trade, as we just learn about her treatment in China through phone calls with her mother in law.

The film is beautifully shot and the issues it deals with, the rise of amphetamine in Myanmar and Southeast Asia and the poverty of Chinese ethnic groups in Myanmar, are interesting, although they get a more interesting examination elsewhere. Check out the references below for a more interesting analysis on how the meth trade is affecting China and for more news on Myanmar and South East Asia from a news site run by exiles from Myanmar.

That said, I thought that certain scenes were moving, like the death scene of the grandfather at the start of the movie and the bookend-style scenes on the male lead’s family plot at the start and end of the movie. The film does achieve its end in the sense that I was convinced of the frustration felt by these people and that there is no way out for them other than death from starvation or criminal behavior and prison, however, I felt this could have been achieved with a lot more pathos if the characters and the love between them had been more three dimensional than the “romantic montage” allowed for.