It is a cold, grey and sleety February afternoon in Berlin, but Burmese-Taiwanese filmmaker Midi Z (趙德胤) appears to be bursting at the seams with a tropical enthusiasm. It is not surprising — the 31-year-old’s third feature film Ice Poison (冰毒) had been selected for inclusion in the city’s prestigious film festival and reviews had been warm.
We find ourselves chatting on the chilly stairs outside the film festival’s HQ, a renovated museum. Our path to the building’s inner sanctum, where the world’s filmmaking elite are gathered, is blocked by black-jacketed security officers. Having made several feature films in his native Myanmar, Midi Z is no stranger to steely-eyed officials and despite having no festival accreditation he has soon convinced the ear-piece wearing guards to allow me inside.
Hundreds of film sector big-wigs are conducting deals within the warmed-up interior and their smartphone chatter fills the hall. Midi Z leads me to a tiny corner of the venue where he has ensconced himself amid a small army of representatives from the Taiwanese film industry.
Variety magazine described Ice Poison as “simple, direct and involving” and the film — starring Wang Shin-hong (王興洪) as the son of an impoverished vegetable farmer, alongside theatre actress and dancer Wu Ke-xi (吳可熙) who plays Sanmei (a young woman returning to her homeland to bury her grandfather) — is currently playing at the well-respected Tribeca Film Festival in New York. It was also included in the Hong Kong Film festival as well as a series of other film events worldwide. Not bad for the youngest son of a cash-strapped Chinese family in Myanmar.
At the age of 16 — when Midi Z had just moved alone to Taipei to undertake his studies — he had to supplement his education with menial jobs while surreptitiously sleeping in student lodgings, without paying rent. Moving to Taiwan, says Midi Z, made him “more objective … and I think more realistic.” Something he feels that has bolstered his filmmaking.
The story of Midi Z’s early and surprisingly successful career in film is now relatively well known. He graduated from the Department of Industrial and Commercial Design at the National Taiwan University of Science and Technology (國立台灣科技大學) and his graduation film Paloma Blanca made its mark at a number of international film festivals; in 2009 he joined the Golden Horse Film Academy in Taipei, the brain-child of Hou Hsiao-hsien (侯孝賢), a leading figure on Taiwan’s New Wave cinema movement.
Evidently a survivor, Midi Z still found himself at a loss towards the end of 2010 and made his way back to Myanmar — the inspiration of all his creative endeavors.
“I couldn’t help but dream of returning to Myanmar to do something connected to the culture … but I arrived there and felt sad,” he says. “I couldn’t find any job connected to my career … [and] I felt a big gap because I had been living in Taipei, which is such a modern city and so different to my home town.”
His first feature film, Return to Burma (歸來的人), was inspired by his real-life journey and, like all his films since, was filmed on the fly with a shoestring budget in a country emerging from despotic rule where rules are still enforced by heavy-handed authorities. It is an approach that comes with a major element of risk.
Midi Z insists he has never bribed corrupt officials but says being in possession of the business cards of well-placed officials can come in handy.