‘City of Jade’ (‘Fei Cui Zhi Cheng’): Film Review

Taiwan-based filmmaker Midi Z returns to his birth country of Burma to follow his elder brother’s near-delusional pursuit of riches in rural jade mines.

A chronicle of a man’s pursuit for wealth in the war-ravaged, rugged Southeast Asian hinterlands, City of Jade bridges the two artistic extremes embodied in Burmese-Taiwanese filmmaker Midi Z’s previous and next feature. Positioned somewhere in between last year’s exposition-free cinema verite Jade Miners and the upcoming star-tinged romance drama of The Road to Mandalay, City of Jade is a conventional and technically proficient documentary driven by the director’s own emotional investment in the protagonist, who happens to be his elder brother.

The Bottom Line

A conventional and technically sound doc.

Accessible and engaging in terms of its representation of Burmese social schisms and a jaded man’s delusions about his self-imagined El Dorado, City of Jade — which bowed at Berlin’s Forum sidebar before traveling to Hong Kong — is certainly a good way for the filmmaker to bid temporary adieu to his indie roots. A mix of the political and the personal, City of Jade should sustain interest on the festival circuit either on its own or as a double bill alongside the mainstream crossover Road to Mandalay, which remains in line for a berth at one of Cannes’ parallel sections next month.

With Jade Miners and also his video piece My Folks in Jade City part of a video installation at the International Film Festival Rotterdam in January, Z — born Zhao De-yen — offers a look into the lives of nameless laborers working dangerously at mountainside quarries in northeast Burma, a region where a civil war still rages between the government and Kachin separatist rebels. In City of Jade, the narrative converges on one figure in the shape of Zhao De-chin, Z’s eldest sibling who once vanished from the director’s life for nearly two decades in his ill-fated efforts to strike it rich in those desolate mines.

In Z’s voiceover, he talks about how De-chin’s dreams have vanished amid the punishing toil and the haze of opium, which has become the miners’ escapist pleasure of choice; briefly reappearing for his father’s funeral, De-chin eventually returned a broken man, with Z and his mother reuniting with him after he had served time for his illicit work and habits. While the drugs might have gone, the delusion stayed — and City of Jade is basically Z’s first-hand, upfront record of De-chin’s return to that rugged terrain to again search for that ever-elusive gemstone that will change his life.

While the international press obsess about Burma’s so-called move toward freedom and the free market, De-chin’s world remains more or less as daunting and perilous. Compared to Jade Miners‘ endless digging and drilling, City of Jade encompasses much more quotidian drama. Military raids against the illicit mining operations are filmed from afar or even up close, in one instance with Z using a hidden camera to record his confrontation with soldiers. There are workers coming and going on various levels of distress and disillusionment; and, in perhaps the most subjective of episodes, Z’s visit to the local hospital as he himself is stricken with malaria.

But central to all this is De-chin, whose hopes and fears channel a 21st century Asian Don Quixote or Fitzcarraldo. While trying his best to keep himself upbeat — perhaps for his kid brother’s sake — his melancholy is obvious. Augmented by a score from composer Lim Giong and sound designer Tu Duu-chih — longtime regulars of Hou Hsiao-hsien’s filmmaking troupe — Z has certainly played out De-chin’s internal conflict amidst the most staggering of broken landscapes, with the man reciting heroic poetry and waxing philosophical as he surveys scarred slopes and smoldering pits in the dusty glow of dusk.

“It’s all for a dream … that they turn mountains into valleys,” says De-chin in one of his soliloquies. With City of Jade, Z shines a light into a man’s endless flights into fantasy and this vain search for a nonexistent happy ending in the face of endless tribulations, trauma and tragedy.

Production companies: Seashore Image Productions, Myanmar Montage Productions in a Taiwan Public Service Television Foundation presentation
Director: Midi Z
Screenwriters: Midi Z, Wu Pei-chi
Producers: Wang Shin-hong, Midi Z, Isabella Ho, Lin Sheng-wen
Executive producer: Jessie Shih
Director of photography: Midi Z, Wang Fu-ang
Editor: Midi Z, Lin Sheng-wen
Music: Lim Giong
Sound designer: Tu Duu-chih
International sales: Seashore Image Productions

In Burmese and Mandarin

Not rated, 99 minutes