In Midi Z’s latest work, the primary subject is his older brother De-chin. De-chin committed himself to the arduous task of jade mining twenty years ago in the northern area of Kachin in the brothers’ native country of Myanmar. Though he struck jade, as it were, and accumulated substantial money from it, he lost contact with his family for some time due to spiraling down into drugs and gambling. In 2010, De-chin was released from a Mandalay prison, fulfilling his sentence for drug abuse. During De-chin’s break from the family, Midi himself went abroad (as did his sister) to Taiwan as a teenager; there, he completed his schooling and began his filmmaking. Even though Midi has even gone so far as to acquire Taiwanese citizenship, the subjects of his films (documentary or otherwise) are invariably about his home country. City of Jade is no exception and in fact a companion piece to his previous documentary, Jade Miners (2015). With his brother as the primary subject, Midi seeks to reconnect with him and find out what exactly happened to his brother during the time that he had lost contact with the family. In the end, not much is revealed about De-chin and those ‘lost’ years. But with Midi’s first-person voiceover dialoguing with and propelling the footage, what is revealed through De-chin is a broken national psyche through the act of jade mining, with its landscape of desire, ambition, corruption, and war representing and referencing the country’s socioeconomic/political straits.
When De-chin reconnects with the family, he is once again determined to return to Kachin and engage in jade mining. This time, Midi accompanies his older brother: in part to document his brother’s experiences (and perhaps keep a literal eye on him), but also to register the Sisyphean task of jade mining for those bold enough like De-chin to do so and the country’s wracked state of war, politics, and economic hardships — the latter directly prompting men like De-chin to brave the endless labour and risk of jade mining, in the hopes of finding that one jade which could make them rich. Part of the risk and danger of jade mining is getting into Kachin, which is a politically contested area between the national government and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA). Getting into Kachin’s jade mines requires passing through KIA checkpoints; through De-chin’s contacts, he, Midi, and other fellow would-be jade miners arrive in Kachin.
Once at Kachin, at the Hpakant mine, the film entrenches itself in the land and presents the day-to-day challenges and hopes in jade mining. On one side, day-to-day means the hard labour of striking away at the earth in search of jade, which also encompasses cave-ins. On the other side, day-to-day also means jade miners being struck by frequent police raids. Since corporate-driven jade mining has ceased due to the resumption of war between national soldiers and the KIA in mid-2011, in its place has sprouted amateur/illegal jade mining by the hundreds, if not more. Raids consist of confiscation of mining tools (often brought by the amateur/illegal miners themselves) and arrests. Stuck between the military and KIA is thus the average (poor, male) citizen eking out not a living but survival, yet carried by the chance of finding jade that will set him (and his family) for life. Midi’s voiceover guides the flow of information between the personal (his brother) and the political (the country), in the middle of which are recurring images of bodies working the earth under the sun or inside mines. While repetitive, perhaps that is the intention. Such recurring wide shots of the Hpakant mine miniaturises the miners’ bodies like ants against the unyielding earth, as if to emphasise the desperation mixed with helplessness that these men possess and are pouring into jade mining. Complementing these wide shots are scenes of medium- and close-up shots of De-chin and other miners sharing their dreams or family situations, during meals and moments of respite. These scenes of camaraderie give individual faces/voices to experiences and are a welcome sight in the film, which is otherwise rather bleak.
As the film progresses with its relentless focus on all aspects of jade mining, including the habitual drug use among miners, the existence of dreams in such a purgatory-like setting becomes increasingly paradoxical. If De-chin is reticent about sharing his experiences during those ‘lost’ years cut off from his family, he is surprisingly candid about one aspect of those experiences that is also heavily connected to jade mining: (his) drug use. In fact, he openly ingests opium and pops pills in front of the camera, as others do. Given that mining is so labour-intensive, drug use among miners is rampant: to stave off fatigue and thus continue to dig, and/or ease their physical pains and also perhaps their cracked, elusive dreams.