Monday, September 28, 2009

BKKIFF '09 review: Agrarian Utopia

  • Directed by Uruphong Raksasad
  • Reviewed at Bangkok International Film Festival, September 27, 2009
  • Wise Kwai's rating: 5/5

Although the images are beautifully captured, the unblinking high-definition digital camera lens does not shy away from the hardships two farming families endure over the course of a year in Agrarian Utopia.

For his documentary project, filmmaker Uruphong Raksasad engaged two families to work a plot of land he rented in his home village in Terng district, Chiang Rai, for one year. This is the same place he filmed his short-film anthology Stories from the North. Agrarian Utopia is a unique piece of filmmaking. It has a loose script providing the framework, but the picture is filled in with toiling, back-breaking work. It really is a documentary.

The rhythms of life depicted are reminiscent of Vichit Kounavudhi's Son of the Northeast (Luk Issan), a 1980s documentary-style drama set in the 1930s that followed a group of northeastern Thailand farming families.

Not much has changed, aside from a few motor vehicles. There's still no electricity nor indoor plumbing for the farm houses. But the difference with Agrarian Utopia is that it is real and it's happening now. And it has a fresh injection of Thai politics, with its color-coded red- and yellow-shirted protesters, neither of which seem to make any difference in the lives of the poor farmers. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss. And the bank is still going to take your land if you can't pay back the loan, no matter what financing schemes are being promised by whatever party is in power.

And this is the situation that the two families are in. One family has been evicted from their land -- it's easy to get loans, and so hard to pay them back, one man laments. Another man was squatting in an abandoned construction project. According to the script, they are tasked by a Chiang Rai land owner to work his land, planting rice for a season. Neither the land owner nor the farmers can afford any of the modern machinery like tractors or harvesters, so they'll work the paddy fields by hand, and till the earth with an untrained and generally unhelpful water buffalo.

A neighbor is there to give advice and lend a helping hand with training the stubborn draft animal. But this long-haired, bespectacled professor -- a real character -- has his own way of doing things. He's totally into self-sufficiency and growing food to have something to eat, not for the money.

The rice crop brings in less money than is expected, and the land owner takes a bigger share than originally planned, because he wants to buy a car.

Meanwhile, the families are finding other ways to make due and eat. There is a mushroom crop that brings in supplemental cash. There are fish in the paddy fields and streams. Waterfowl and snakes are captured and fried up or roasted. Ants' nests are raided and larvae eaten. Honey-laden beehives are a delicacy. One hive is found on the landmark golden Buddhist stupa that sits on a hill above the valley. It's perched right above the Buddha statue, proving to be a conundrum for the hungry families.

Conversations do turn to politics. But politicians of whatever stripe or color are about has helpful as that recalcitrant water buffalo. But mostly the talk is about food -- one evening's bedtime conversation starts by the husband's mention of a particularly large frog they ate that day, and circles back to it. Food is an obsession when there is little to eat.

What's striking about Uruphong's films is the intimacy of his photography and camera angles that clearly show a willingness to get right down in the thick of things. Not only do the subjects appear to forget the camera is there, for the audience it seems as if the camera is bypassed altogether, and what's on the screen is being transmitted by the naked eye.

Among the joyful moments are when the families' young boys are playing in the fields, rolling around and tossing mud back and forth. As they run, the camera follows close behind or right beside them, with muddy droplets suspended in the air. The infectiousness of that youthful energy transmits right into the cold dark multiplex screen, and it's heartwarming.

Other times the camera observes nature -- of a kingfisher spearing its prey, or in time-elapsed frames, black storm clouds rolling in, or a jaw-dropping look at night after night of the star-filled skies.

But there is sadness too, when the land owner tells the families he has to sell his land in order to pay off the car loan. The news comes just after the families have put in a great deal of hard labor in the rain to plant a new season's rice crop.

The professor says the families can work one or two of his plots of land, but they'll have to follow his rules, the chief one being that he does not allow the use of chemicals. They can't agree to those terms, but the path they choose to take themselves is not any easier. It's leading away from the countryside, to Bangkok and other cities, to jobs that involve working with cement and not the soil.

The title of Agrarian Utopia initially struck me as a bit chilling. It was an "agrarian utopia" that the Khmer Rouge sought to make in Cambodia. But in the case of Uruphong's film, it's not a reference to communism at all. For the families in the film, the "agrarian utopia" is unattainable. The title is simply meant to be ironic, as was explained in a Q&A session after the movie's screening in the Documentary Showcase section of the 2009 Bangkok International Film Festival. The Thai title is Sawan Baan Naa (สวรรค์บ้านนา), which roughly translates to "heavenly home [in the] field".

It was the Bangkok premiere for the film. Fittingly, the Thailand premiere was in Chiang Rai a few months ago, to an audience of around 300 -- bigger than the BKKIFF crowd, it was noted. There is hope for a limited theatrical run in Bangkok later this year.

The film, which debuted at the 2009 International Film Festival Rotterdam and has won several awards since, is produced by Pimpaka Towira, with associate producer Mai Meksuwan for Extra Virgin. It received funding from the International Film Festival Rotterdam's Hubert Bals Fund and the Thailand Ministry of Culture's Office of Contemporary Arts and Culture.

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