Director Midi Z returns to Burma for his third feature film, “Ice Poison,” set in his hometown, Lashio, in Shan State.
The 32-year-old filmmaker moved abroad to Taiwan at the age of 16 but now goes back to Burma several times a year for film projects. “Ice Poison,” which tells the story of a young farmer who becomes involved in the drug trade, premiered in the United States last month at the Tribeca Film Festival. After returning to Taiwan, Midi Z talked to The Irrawaddy about his childhood in Lashio, his plans to show the film to a Burmese audience, and two ongoing projects—including a new film set in Rangoon and another based in Thailand.
Question: What was your inspiration for ‘Ice Poison’?
Answer: ‘Ice Poison’ is based on two stories. First, my best friend from childhood went to Thailand to find a job, and while working at a factory on the border he started using drugs, and he developed a mental illness. Also, when I was in Lashio in 2013 to shoot a short project for a Chinese TV series, I was thinking about how Burma has changed and how the situation has become complicated. … ‘Ice Poison’ is a story that is connected to the present situation. People in Myanmar [Burma] are hoping for change, thinking that change will allow them to pursue better lives, but the reality is that change does not benefit everyone.
Q: Did many parts of the film draw on your own childhood?
A: Of course. Lashio is a border city, five hours by car from China. In and around Lashio, everyone—especially young people, young men—could easily get drugs. I think it’s because we had too much free time on our hands, we had nothing to do. Also, the poor people, especially the farmers, they were looking for a way to escape their reality.
Q: Does the story include any of the government’s anti-narcotics efforts?
A: No. There are two main storylines. First, there’s a farming family living in the mountains. After a bad harvest they need to make a better living, so the father sends his son to work as a motorbike taxi driver in the city. They sell their cow in exchange for the bike, but the son fails to get enough customers. Then he meets a young woman, Sanmei. The second storyline is hers: She was tricked into marrying a man in China, but she returns to Burma for her grandfather’s funeral. Her father can’t come because he is in northern Burma at a jade mountain, and her brother is a sailor working in the seas near Taiwan, so she is the only one to face this. She also needs to make money. She meets the young farmer, the young taxi driver, and they fall in love. They start dealing drugs. Eventually the main character, the taxi driver, begins using drugs and Sanmei is arrested by the police.
Q: Have people in Burma been able to watch the film?
A: Maybe in the future they can. I don’t know if it can be released officially in Burma because we didn’t have a filming permit. The filmmaking was very improvised, we hadn’t planned in advance to shoot, so we didn’t apply for permission. When a DVD is released, I will put the film online—I made it for everyone.
Q: How long did it take to shoot the film?
A: Just 10 days. It was very quick.
Q: Has the film won any awards?
A: Yes, at an independent film festival in Taiwan. It premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival, and later played at a Hong Kong film festival and in Osaka [Japan]. Tribeca is the eighth film festival.
Q: Can you tell me about some of your previous projects?
A: My first feature [‘Return to Burma’] was shot in 2010, just after the presidential election. It’s about a young man who’s living abroad, and when he hears that his home country is going to be changed he becomes hopeful, so he decides to go back, to find something to do there. When he arrives, he feels that everything has stayed the same. His relatives think he must be very rich, even though he was only a construction worker when he was living abroad. And his relatives, especially his younger brother, all want to go abroad, to Malaysia or Singapore. It’s complex: People like us want to go back to our home country because the times are changing, but then most of the people I meet there want to leave Burma.
My second feature [‘Poor Folk’] is a border story, about a man who sneaks into Thailand with his younger sister. She is taken away by human traffickers and he finds a job in tourism, with some connections to a mafia. He wants to make enough money to get his sister back.
Q: Are there any Burmese filmmakers who inspire you?
A: To be honest, I haven’t seen any Burmese films while I’ve been in Burma. When I started my career as a filmmaker, I researched the history of Burmese filmmaking. After 1972, there were fewer and fewer films reflecting the reality of the situation there. We have a lot of DVDs for sale in Rangoon, but the films were shot quickly, in three to 10 days, like a TV series, soft dramas, not films. We have great black-and-white films from the 1960s though.
Q: Who are your inspirations outside Burma?
A: Of course, there are a lot. Like Hou Hsiao-Hsien, a Taiwanese director. Also Stanley Kubrick.
Q: What projects are you working on now?
A: We are developing a script for a film that will be totally shot in Rangoon. The story is about a family running a phone booth and losing their ability to make a living. In Rangoon, these days people who run phone booths can’t make a living because mobile phones are becoming more popular and are easier to buy.
A script has already been finished for another film, ‘The Road to Mandalay.’ It’s a love story that takes place in a border refugee camp and in Bangkok. I think we’ll start shooting next year and the shooting will take three months. Maybe before August  it will be finished.