Movie review: Blood Amber

Slow-paced with little plot or tension, this beautifully shot documentary on Myanmar’s amber miners in a war zone could have drawn more from its chaotic background instead of focusing almost solely on the characters’ mundane and harsh everyday lives

By Han Cheung  /  Staff reporter

Thu, Aug 02, 2018 - Page 14

Don’t get too excited about the gorgeous, protracted fixed camera shot of a worker descending into an amber mine at the beginning of Blood Amber — there are many more of these to come. Too many, in fact.

In this slow-paced documentary on amber miners in Myanmar without much of a plot, director Lee Yung-chao (李永超) mostly fixates on the mundane details of the miners’ daily routines, patching together sequences that are beautiful and atmospheric but eventually start to feel painfully drawn out.

About an hour into the film, almost nothing has happened as the miners and the boss are unable to work due to high water levels in the shaft. We watch them eat, cook, bathe, chop trees, smoke, run errands and cook and eat again, while Lee sporadically asks them questions about the industry and their lives. And as the viewer’s patience begins to run out, the longest extended sequence of the film begins: five minutes watching the workers collect water and another 10 minutes of them walking back to their camp in silence.

It’s not surprising to learn that Lee is a fan of Taiwanese arthouse veteran Hou Hsiao-hsien (侯孝賢) and is an alumni of Hou’s Golden Horse Film Academy. This is the kind of style that has helped Hou become a darling of the festival circuits, with the documentary selected for the Locarno Film Festival and Busan International Film Festival last year, and nominated last month for best documentary for this year’s Asia-Pacific Film Festival.

Life in the mines, isolated from civilization high up in the mountains, is indeed harsh, repetitive and mundane, and Lee does fully convey that notion, especially with the prolonged shots and repetitive actions. There’s apparently a war going on nearby, as the workers hear explosions near the end of the film, which makes one suspect that there’s way more going on than the film depicts.

Interviews with Lee reveal a quite amazing backstory that could have given the film some tension and excitement. Apparently the area is controlled by ethnic Kachin rebels, who have been fighting the government since 2011, and also between 1961 and 1994. Amidst this chaos, amber mining is one of the few hopes for the locals to get out of poverty. This is touched on, but it feels like emphasizing it more would have been far more interesting than repeatedly watching them eat and sleep.

The miners talk about some of these issues in their interviews, which show glimpses of their personalities and hardships, but overall their relationships with each other and the mine are not flushed out enough.

And Lee, who grew up in Myanmar but studied in Taiwan, actually risked his life to visit the area to make the film, mostly having to shoot covertly with minimal equipment. And the owner of the mine, Lee Shih-hao (李士豪), also a Myanmar-born ethnic Chinese who studied and worked in Taiwan, allowed the director to continue filming despite being paid a visit by the rebel troops and reportedly used his “connections” to keep people’s mouths shut.

It’s understandable that this is not a commercial film. The music, cinematography and the director’s willingness to experiment should really be commended, but it wouldn’t hurt to add some excitement into a film that has such a turbulent background.