Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Rice People (1994) is a fascinating ethnographic film from Cambodian director Rithy Panh. Shahnon Ahmad's source novel Ranjau Sepanjang Jalan was written in 1967 and therefore does not reference the Khmer Rouge genocide that swept the country between 1975 and 1979, claiming millions of lives. Director Panh addresses that subject in his more recent S-21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine. Rice People's chronicle of a few critical months in the life of a peasant farming family is told on an intimate scale, yet expands to examine universal issues about the human condition.
Farmer Yong Poeuv (Mom Soth) and his wife Yim Om (Peng Phan) are just getting by. They work several rice paddies yet do not earn enough from their crop to send their children to school. Poeuv loves his seven daughters but knows that they are a liability, as families with marriageable sons demand a wedding dowry. Poeuv is eager to "awaken the paddies" for a new rice crop but potential disaster strikes at the outset. Om is bitten by a cobra and barely survives, and halfway through the plowing Poeuv picks up a crippling thorn. Om bravely continues with the planting, encouraging her young daughters to help; the minor accident has threatened the survival of the family.
Many documentaries about indigenous peoples simply explain their quaint customs as a 'lifestyle,' allowing us to compare it with out own. Wondering at the hardships of the nomads in Cooper and Schoedsack's Grass, we mostly thank our lucky stars that our personal survival doesn't depend on making impossible treks across the mountains of hostile continents.
The docudrama Nanook of the North embellished its 'docu' content with a fictitious, or at least stage-managed personal story. Nanook's artifice has been established but we still identify strongly with the Inuit native's struggle against the elements.
Authors from Steinbeck to Pearl Buck have used poetic language to encourage identification with people directly connected to the soil. Rice People does the same with intimate images. The story is definite fiction based on a popular novel that had already been filmed once in 1983. Without voiceover or explanatory titles, we are made privy to the Yong Poeuv's family's daily existence and its relationship with its little plot of land. Poeuv and Om give prayers and set out offerings with the hope that by expressing one's love for God (nature), nature (God) will respond with the bounty of life, a good harvest. Exceptional luck might mean money to buy more paddies or to educate one of Poeuv's seven daughters. Bad luck could result in ruin and starvation, as the village society serves only those who contribute to the local economy. A more likely outcome is that the family will just scrape by, carrying a modest debt. There are no relatives to fall back on and no margin for error.
Poeuv and Om are perhaps in their middle thirties and their daughters range from just a couple of years to a teenager of around 14, Sakha (Chhim Naline). Mom and dad do the serious work while the girls help out around the periphery or play with sticks in their elevated house.
The narrative charts what happens when things go wrong. Om and Poeuv are strong and motivated but their lives are turned upside down for no reason other than blind chance. There is no way of avoiding the simple thorn that puts Poeuv out of action. Advised to go to the city for treatment, he prefers to hope for a natural recovery and avoid borrowing more money. Poeuv foolishly attempts to remove the thorn by himself, and makes the infection much worse.
Om has to carry on without her husband. She continues to work hard but misses him so badly that she eventually suffers a nervous breakdown. Sakha takes on the responsibility that would fall to an eldest son, knowing that she may never be a suitable bride for a neighbor boy that the village calls "the poet." Their relationship is a simple one -- Sakha smiles in his presence, and he smiles back.
The hardships multiply. Om becomes unstable and has to be caged. Sakha borrows money to send Om to the city, but she comes back unchanged. By now all of the girls are working in the paddies, battling weeds, an infestation of crabs and marauding sparrows. The harvest comes in, but after the repayment of debt it will be barely enough to live on. Sakha shoulders responsibility for the family while also providing for her now unproductive mother.
The miracle of Rice People is that throughout all of this strife the people's worship of the Earth is never threatened. Om raves and makes wild accusations but when freed finds comfort in caressing the rice plants that she loves as much as she loved her daughters. A healthy crop means survival and Sakha lavishes loving care on each little rice sprout. The film overflows with beautiful little scenes that express the peasant lifestyle in unsentimental terms. Om teaches the youngest girl to pray for her grandmother and to hug mommy. Poeuv hugs his daughter and carves her a wooden toy while waiting for his ankle to heal. Sakha allows her beautiful hair to be shaved away so that she can serve the function of an eldest son at her father's funeral. In the film's most lyrical scene Sakha enjoys a quiet boat ride gathering water lilies with her boyfriend.
Director Rithy Panh and a mostly French crew make Rice People an absorbing, illuminating experience. The months of backbreaking labor result in a half-dozen bags of grain that seem a priceless treasure. The family ekes out a living with only a handful of modern items -- a kerosene lamp, a straight razor, various pots and pans. Everything else in their life is homemade. The basic insecurity of their dependence on the weather is so obvious that only a madwoman would put it into words. When the crops are in Om is released into the paddies, and dances for joy. These people are literally one with nature.
Facets Video's DVD of Rice People is a better presentation than many of their efforts because of the quality of the transfer supplied by the company Blaq Out. Unlike other Facets product, this title has full menus, removable subtitles and a beautiful enhanced widescreen transfer. Still, Facets' encoding is slightly inadequate; in scenes with action, small details tend to blur into digital mush. Overall the image is attractive and satisfying.
The clear audio gives us a chance to hear the Khmer-language dialogue in detail. It's difficult to understand how they named Poeuve in the subtitles, as his spoken name sounds so different.
Rithy Panh appears for a lengthy commentary in which he explains his upbringing as a city child who frequently visited the country. He lost most of his family in the Khmer Rouge years, the national holocaust that figures heavily in much of his other work. Panh's interpretation of Yim Om was based on a real person. He had his actors, some of them city people, live in the actual conditions of the story. Actress Chhim Naline is a dancer and resisted when told that she would have her head shaved as part of the film. Panh tells us that he now has a functional crew of Thai technicians, but this film benefits from the delicate editing patterns of Andrée Davanture and Marie-Christine Rougerie. Likewise, the sensitive music by Jean-Claude Brisson and Marc Marder has a definite European sensibility.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Rice People rates:
Supplements: Video interview with director Rithy Panh.
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: June 4, 2006
Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson