ICE POISON (Midi Z, 2014): Realist Transparency and Dedramatization in the Contemporary Art Film

[Note: this essay was written after viewing the film at the 2014 Montreal World Film Festival. Subsequent viewings will undoubtedly lead to local refinements in the plot analysis performed here.] 

“Realism”–the term appears in countless reviews of Ice Poison, the latest film by Myanmar-born, Taiwan-based director Midi Z. Variety‘s Richard Kuipers writes: “The quiet talk and the absence of impassioned speech making or bold dramatic flourishes won’t appeal to everyone, but for audiences in tune with the rhythm of Midi Z.’s realistic approach to storytelling, the results will prove engrossing.” And the Wall Street Journal states that “[a]ccording to Midi Z, the movie aims to offer a realistic view of what life is still like for 99% of the people” in Myanmar (Burma).

To what do critics attribute this “realism”? On the one hand, there is Midi Z’s distant camera and static long takes; on the other, there are his themes, which address socio-economic woes, drug abuse and trade and generational conflict faced by the poor and working class of contemporary Myanmar.

But how does Midi Z tell a story? Does the narration of Ice Poison–the way that the film sequences events, creates an arc of tension distributed through the film’s 95-minute running time, and structures the viewer’s experiences of time and character–also contribute to the feeling that the film deviates from the “artifice” of mainstream movies? 

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“Realism” as Permanent Disequilibrium, Weak Narrativity and Negative Plotting

Midi Z wrote the film as four relatively balanced acts of approximately 23-24 minutes apiece, but in keeping with a “realist” or anti-artifice storytelling style, he deviates from the norm established by high modernist art films whereby “markers” like intertitles or overt transition effects (like fades to black) are used to announce to the viewer that the plot is transitioning between these large narrative units. (I addressed this approach in a previous post.)

In some respects, then, the script of Ice Poison resembles that of the mainstream (Hollywood) film, in that its global structure remains relatively “invisible” and the viewer’s temporal experience is managed through four symmetrically proportioned “movements.”

And yet, despite the fact the film has something of a “classical” (which is to say, balanced) design at the macro level, within acts and between them the film challenges convention. Realism in this case is a mode of storytelling that makes use of transparency at the level of narrative technique (again, at the macro level) and thematically (or politically) motivated dedramatization (and thus divergence from convention) within acts. Ice Poison’s sparse visuals thus achieve their “realism” in a narrative context.

To be precise, at least four aspects of storytelling create the impression of increased “realism” in the film (I will list them first and then describe the film’s narrative action in greater detail below). The film:

1. Avoids the happy ending or reassuring goal achievement. More accurately, Ice Poison employs an equilibrium/disturbance–additional disturbance–implied permanent disequilibrium narrative pattern. In The Poetics of Prose (1971), Tzvetan Todorov argues that the “ideal” narrative “begins with a stable situation which is disturbed by some power or force” (p. 111). This results in a temporary disequilibrium, which is eventually overcome to create a new stable condition, one of equilibrium that resembles the original state of affairs. But “serious” art films, especially “realist” ones, tend to reject this reassuring pattern. In the case of Ice Poison, the narrative tracks the decline and fall of its main characters, portraying their “real” predicament as insurmountable, and therefore denies the viewer the “artificial” cinematic pleasure of the rosy resolution.

2. Creates a relatively passive protagonist and permanent causal gaps (especially at turning points in the plot), which reinforce the “realist” themes related to the complexity and inscrutability of human psychology and decision-making and the power of broader social forces over individual human action. David Bordwell discusses such art-film “gapping tactics” in his Narration in the Fiction Film (1985).

3. Relies on scenes with weak narrativity. This term, first proposed in Brian McHale’s article “Weak Narrativity: The Case of Avant-Garde Narrative Poetry,” refers to fictional works that tell “stories ‘poorly,’ distractedly, with much irrelevance and indeterminacy, in such a way as to evoke narrative coherence while at the same time withholding commitment to it and undermining confidence in it; in short, having one’s cake and eating it too…” (p.165).

In some moments, the film will give the impression that the narration (that is, the film’s moment-to-moment communication of story events) is clear and reliable, while in others, it will challenge the viewer’s confidence in this clarity and reliability. This is achieved in scenes that do not appear to advance the plot, that seem to be “poorly told,” unmotivated, improvised or that, unlike the conventional scene, will develop according to “natural” or “organic” (and thus unpredictable) rhythms. These scenes introduce “superfluous” or non-essential details that slow down the delivery of pertinent story information or delay answers to the main narrative questions or conflicts.

4. Uses negative plotting. This concept, currently being developed by Susan Lancer, describes a narrative strategy that is different from weak narrativity. It describes narratives that create plots that truly compete for the viewer’s attention. As Karin Kukkonen explains, this narrational approach involves plots “shadowing” one another, that is, becoming “meaningful in their mutual contrast.” They must “negotiate different narrative perspectives and broker the struggle for interpretive dominance.” In a “realist” narrative like Ice Poison, negative plotting gives the film a “dialectical” dimension in which a consistent pattern of plot developments that show attempts on the part of the protagonist to overcome his social predicament “collide” with an opposing series of plot developments that undermine these attempts. 

Ice Poison: Local and Global Harmonies

Let’s now apply these concepts to the film’s plot. As I mentioned, the film has four acts, and notice how these narrative techniques–implied permanent disequilibrium, a relatively passive protagonist, permanent causal gaps, weak narrativity and negative plotting–structure the film’s local and global harmonies (that is, how the story is told within and across acts).

In act 1, we are introduced to one of the film’s protagonists, a young Chinese vegetable farmer (Wang Shin-hong), whose elderly father (Zhou Cai Chang) is coming to the realization that the family farm, located in the hills near Lashio, Myanmar, will no longer support them. In the second scene of the film, the son says that he wants to find work in a jade mine, but the father warns that most miners become drug addicts, and he would risk following the same fate. Instead, the father states a different goal for his son: they will use what means they have to acquire a scooter (we learn later that this will allow the son to earn fees as a scooter-taxi driver).

Like the plots of most mainstream films, Ice Poison has a goal-oriented protagonist (the son), but what is perhaps a little unorthodox is how he acquires the goal: it is given to him by his father. And he passively accepts it without comment or dissent. The son is thus swept up in series of developments, motivated by the family’s socio-economic predicament, one that will, the viewer soon senses, end poorly for both characters.

Still in act 1, or the exposition, the next several scenes complicate matters (for the characters and the viewer) with weak narrativity and negative plotting. Their goal having been clearly articulated in scene two, the characters now go down into the city of Lashio. At least initially, the purpose of this trek isn’t clear. We assume that they are going to do something related to their economic woes, but nothing in the dialogue scenes that immediately ensue confirm this directly. In other words, we have gone from scenes that carefully and coherently spell out the characters’ aims and aspirations to scenes that frustrate the viewer’s interest in how the characters will pursue these aims.

Narrativity is “weakening,” but there’s more going on here than just delays and the introduction of story information tangential to the central narrative thread (the father and son and how they will bring in more income). A different narrative logic now competes for the viewer’s attention.

After scene two, we expect that new information will be shared about their plight or about how they will go about overcoming it. Instead, in three successive conversation scenes, the father and son meet with different townsolks (two of which are women, all of which know the father quite well), and the scenes unfold in unpredictable ways. Each of the townsfolk relate their problems (or those of their children) and how they have coped. These scenes do not culminate with new information about the father-son plot line; rather, they are linked through a governing theme, namely, the effects of low wages, unemployment and poverty on younger and older generations in Lashio.

But the point here is not just that two narrative logics–one goal-related, one theme-related–vie for our attention; rather, the crucial aspect of these scenes is that the conflict between the characters’ pursuit of their aims and these thematically linked episodes conveys an additional theme. We learn that earning more income in the city involves greater risks, monotonous labor and even breaking or at least bending the law. This higher level thematic point isn’t articulated through the dialogue; and nor do the son and father appear to be aware of it. Instead, the narrative’s structure–the use of negative plotting, pitting an ambition against its many perilous risks (with little emphasis on the potential rewards)–gets this “realist” thematic point across.

The purpose of the journey to Lashio is finally clarified in a visit with Uncle Wang (Li Shang Da), the father’s brother. The desperate father and his son want to borrow money for fertilizer, in order to guarantee a healthier harvest for the next season. Uncle Wang says that business is down, and he has no money to loan them. But he offers the son a job. By the end of the lengthy scene, the son is nodding his head, and we cut.

The turning point to act 2 occurs in the next scene, which takes place on a new day (the exactly length of the temporal ellipsis is, I believe, unclear), and shows the father and son paying a second visit to the uncle. Uncle Wang assumes that the son will accept his offer of employment, but instead the father, for reasons that are never made clear–we have here a permanent causal gap–, reverts to the idea of acquiring a scooter as a solution to their financial troubles. The father strikes a deal with Wang, whereby Wang will sell them his old motorcycle. With no money, the father offers family’s cow as collateral. Wang accepts, and in a scriptwriting strategy employed by Midi Z many times throughout the film, the character repeats, with very little variation, a line of dialogue (I paraphrase the redundant statement): if the father and son do not earn enough funds to pay for the scooter, he will have the cow slaughtered.

The first act, then, sets the tone for the film’s unique realist mode of storytelling. We can now move more quickly in our summary of the plot’s major events and techniques.

Approximately 24 minutes into the film, we cut to a new and rather unfamiliar space–a noisy bus station–and for a few moments, our protagonist is nowhere to be seen. This is what I have called elsewhere an “intense recalibrating event“–a type of plot development used by art films to signal, in a striking way, the transition to a new act. (This is the only time that the film uses style, in this case a new space and lack of familiar characters onscreen, to draw the viewer’s attention to a major narrative shift.)

Now in act 2, we follow the son as he pursues his goal: to earn his keep as a scooter-taxi driver. The first several minutes of the act (in a series of wonderful mobile long takes) show the son trying (and failing) to solicit customers. Passengers exit bus after bus from China, but none seem interested. Finally, a young woman, Sanmei (Wu Ke-xi), accepts (after the son makes clear that he, too, is Chinese). He takes her to the modest home of her mother, who is caring for her ailing grandfather. Suddenly, the son totally disappears from the film–and only returns some 20 minutes later!

Once again, weak narrativity comes to the fore. The film’s commitment to coherent and consistent plotting is put into question for a second time. Where is the son, we ask? And why is the plot focusing more and more on Sanmei? Wasn’t the film “about” the plight of the father and son? Will the son return? Will the plot develop a new pattern of following the son as he taxis customers around and then disappears for a half-dozen scenes as we learn of the personal problems of the customers?  

We spend almost the entirety of act 2 with Sanmei, learning of her lonely mother (like the father and son, the mother and daughter have only themselves as companions), as well as her son and loveless marriage in Yunnan, China. Sanmei reveals her goal to her mother: she wishes to earn enough income to bring her son back to Myanmar and raise him on her own. But sensing that her daughter will do anything to achieve this goal, the mother warns Sanmei that she hasn’t the money to bail her daughter out of jail if she becomes involved in drug trafficking.

In the turning point to act 3, we change locations and return to the bus station, where the son is hired to bring Sanmei a telephone (her mother-in-law is trying to reach her from China). This plot development signals a new act because we realize that the son has shifted tactics in trying to achieve his goal. Now, instead of taxiing customers, he is making deliveries.

Indeed, as act 3 begins, he returns to the home of Sanmei’s mother. During a very long take, he and Sanmei sit in the modest home, each looking offscreen left, awaiting the telephone call. (The time that has elapsed in the ellipsis between the scene at the bus station and the son’s arrival at Sanmei’s home is now made clear: it had taken him 30 minutes, and her mother-in-law should call at any moment.) As the two characters wait, they begin to chat, and the son confirms that he’s had very few customers, and is now a courier. Sanmei inquires about the fee he charges for deliveries, a question that suggests that she’s pondering the idea of hiring him to deal illegal drugs.

The rest of the act is quite loose and episodic. Sanmei sings love songs at a karaoke bar (the son sees her, and is invited to take part) (fig.1). She then visits her unnamed cousin, a drug dealer whose business has recently slowed since authorities began to enforce the law in Lashio.

The karaoke bar in Ice Poison (2014).
Fig. 1. The karaoke bar in Ice Poison (2014).

The turning point to act 4 comes when the son returns to the home of Sanmei’s mother. The mother has by now totally disappeared from the film, and Sanmei, lounging in a dimly lit room, invites the son to try ice, a drug she had acquired from her cousin (fig. 2).       

Sanmei and the son smoking "ice" in Ice Poison (2014).
Fig. 2. Sanmei and the son smoking “ice” in Ice Poison (2014).

She then proposes that they become business partners. If he will drive her to make deliveries for her cousin, he will earn a 40% cut of the profits. As he had earlier in the film when Uncle Wang offered him a job, the son once again gently nods his head at the offer.

By act 4, it becomes clear that Midi Z has written a film that will deviate from Todorov’s definition of the “ideal” plot. These characters are on a downward spiral, and it seems unlikely that “equilibrium” will be restored in their lives. In fact, as I stated earlier, I would argue that the plot follows an equilibrium/disturbance–additional disturbance–implied permanent disequilibrium design. The first act of Ice Poison begins with a disturbance: the father and son aren’t earning enough from their farm. Subsequent events in act 2 and 3 depict (or suggest) additional disturbances. The son and father wager that a scooter will be the answer to what ails them, but the business proves to be far less lucrative than they’d calculated. The son adjusts, and attempts to achieve the goal of bringing in more income by making deliveries. But by this point he is so desperate that he is willing to commit to an even more precarious form of employment: drug dealing. It seems likely that this, too, will lead to disappointment. 

Act 4 shows Sanmei and the son sink into addiction, and become increasingly oblivious to the path they are on. A rhythm of getting high and making deliveries now structures the action. More importantly for our purposes, a permanent state of disequilibrium seems to be fated for these characters. On one of their deliveries, Sanmei is arrested, and the son retreats to his father’s house on the hills above Lashio. To calm his nerves, he smokes some ice, and begins to hallucinate; he frantically dances about and lights a bonfire from dried up corn husks. We abruptly cut to the film’s disturbing final shot–reminiscent of the bull slaughter sequence of Strike (Eisenstein, 1925)–where the cow the father and son had left Uncle Wang for collateral is bound, choked and bled. The symbolism here is clear: these two Chinese families, struggling to make a living near the Myanmar-China border, are ruined.

Director Midi Z, actress Ke-Xi Wu and producer Patrick Mao Huang at the Premiere of Ice Poison (2014 Tribeca Film Festival).
Director Midi Z, actress Wu Ke-xi and producer Patrick Mao Huang at the premiere of Ice Poison (2014 Tribeca Film Festival).
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