JWR Articles: Film/DVD - Agrarian Utopia (Director/Writer: Uruphong Rasksasad) - November 18, 2009

Agrarian Utopia

Sawan baan na

3.5 3.5
122 min.

Reviewed at the 2009 Toronto Reel Asian International Film Festival
Depends on how you look at it

“I guess everyone has his own kind of happiness.” Telling words from one of the men who courageously tries to eke out a living farming rice, lemon grass, bamboo and mushrooms.

The yoke around their four-legged livestock’s necks serves as the perfect metaphor for the easy-to-obtain bank loans that doom the applicants to a life of servitude. With the prices for their crops as low as the interest rates are high (both managed by a government that preaches democracy yet delivers little but empty promises and scandals—hmmm, why does that sound so familiar?), the chances for success are slimmer than the skin-and-bones physiques of those who perform back-breaking labour in the rice paddies (cross-reference below for the similar plight of south-western Ontario’s tobacco workers).

Uruphong Raksasad’s “agriocultural” study of two fictitious families banding together to keep afloat is fascinatingly uneven.

No one will leave a screening without learning much about how the rice that gets to their table has such a torturous journey.

Oddly lacking a music track (we are always greedy for more indigenous art), it’s left to the birds, wind, water, homemade bamboo pipes and one a capella song—whose lyrics describe seeking the warmth of a woman—to interest the ear between sparse, somewhat disjointed dialogues.

It’s the “crazy fool” who serves as troubadour. Raksasad makes a multitude of points as the long-haired widower defies the impoverishment of his neighbours.

Living alone, owning more land than he can farm, his entirely self-sufficient existence is chemical free (a significant portion of his colleagues’ debt can be traced back to “modern” agriculture techniques that, if left unchecked, could poison the same well-water that ensures what life there is continues).

A couple of sequences explain both the promise and concerns of the filmmaker’s skill. Raksasad’s wonderfully close camera captures birds finding their next meal only to—in mid gulp of the unlucky insect—become dinner on the farmers’ plates.

The set-up of taming a water buffalo kicks of with unwieldy promise (not dissimilar to breaking wild broncos—cross-reference below). Yet the subsequent updates lack any resolution or payoff. Similarly, the botched hunt of an unwanted dog has moments of drama only to weaken, letting the “storyline” find its way into a bony stew.

Still, for those with patience and the ability to connect some of Raksasad’s dots on their own, Agrarian Utopia is well worth a peek, but be prepared to chow down on a vast menu which includes snake, larvae, and fresh-from-the hive honey as side dishes to the main course’s food for thought. JWR

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