January 8, 2015
The Rice Bomber – Taiwan, 2014
Farming is backbreaking work. It always has been. And there has always been controversy when it came to farming, prices, and trade, controversy which has only grown since the spread of globalization and the concepts of free trade and lower tariffs. To illustrate this Cho Li’s The Rice Bomber shows viewers a farmers’ protest from 1988, and it is telling that in the sixteen years that elapse during the film, the farmers’ plight only worsens.
At the heart of Li’s film is Rumen Yang, well played by Chien-Wei Huang. Rumen lives on a rice farm with his grandparents in Changhua County, and the film’s opening scenes inform viewers of a common dilemma there; namely, whether to stay and try to make it work or to admit defeat and go. Many have chosen the latter; Rumen’s grandparents elect to stay, believing – perhaps erroneously – that if they continue to farm, they will be able to keep their land and their way of life. It is a quest that is getting harder with each passing day. For example, early on in the film, we learn that the family is being charged for using water from a well that they built themselves. It hardly seems fair, but what can they do?
The first half of the film documents Rumen’s real-world education. At home, he sees his grandparents struggle; in the military, he is constantly bullied by his superior officer and soldiers from the upper class; and later, he meets a boy young enough to be in school, yet tasked with providing for his three younger siblings. Each of these experiences teaches him about the plight of those with little money or power, and he comes to see the government as both corrupt and unconcerned about the poor. In one scene, we see a meeting between a government official and the head of a local lending service, the kind that operates unofficially and often charges an exorbitant interest rate, and it is clear that they are in cahoots.
This is the part of the film that I enjoyed the most, for it builds up a case for the pessimism and hopelessness we hear reflected in the farmers’ words. Some have no faith in the government; others too much. In either case, there is no evidence that anyone is working on their behalf - as one character points out, there’s much more money to be made in hotels and land development than in farming. As time progresses, we watch as Rumen moves from shouting disparaging words at reporters and local authorities to more political actions. His first is to begin a letter writing campaign and a petition drive in the hopes that these will inform those with the power to do something about the plight of the farmers. His pleas fall on deaf ears. One scene in particular is telling. In it, Rumen visits the Council of Agriculture in Taipei, and in less time than it would take to make a piece of toast, he is told what a complex process it is to file a petition, urged to present his case local authorities, and shown the door.
The first half of the film is also memorable for the array of characters we are introduced to, for with these characters we get a good understanding of all of the parties involved. We see Rumen’s grandparents, lifelong farmers just trying to hold on to an endangered way of life; we meet a young aboriginal teen (Yang, Peng-yu) who teaches Rumen an important lesson about stereotypes; and we are introduced to a young woman referred to as “Troublemaker” (Nikki Hsieh). She wants to start a revolution, but quickly recognizes the times for what they are. As I watched the film, I expected a romance to develop, yet the film steers clear of this, partly because it has such a hard time building their chemistry. In fact, they spend most of their scenes together cursing and yelling at each other. Not exactly the ideal recipe for love.
Unfortunately, the film runs out of steam in the second half, bogged down by political speeches, unnecessary flashbacks, and a series of scenes in which ordinary people run away screaming or in which robotic arms reach in to grab parcels that contain minor explosives. These scenes became tedious and redundant after a while. The film is also hampered by its lead character, for if what the film relates is true, Rumen was on the low end of the terrorist scale. After all, according to the film, it was publicity he was after, not carnage, and the film ends with a whimper, instead of a bang (no pun intended). Also, it seems clear to me that Li has a favorable view of Rumen. This may explain why there is very little development of the film’s seedier characters and virtually no decent government officials. There is also no exploration of the long-term effects of Rumen’s actions of the poor souls who were just at work, in a park, or at a train station when they either came across a bomb or were close to one that actually went off. I have no doubt that some of these people were scarred for life by the experience.
In the end, The Rice Bomber is a decent film that will shed light on the current plight of farmers in Taiwan, many of whom continue to rally against free trade deals that they see as threatening their livelihood. It also adequately shows how an average young man could become someone who resorts to terrorism to get his message across. However, with its important subject matter and such an interesting character as Rumen Yang, I can’t help feeling that it should have been much more of an event, rather than a slow trudge through a succession of bomb scares. In the end, the film is a noble effort, but it had the potential to be so much more than that. (on DVD in Region 3)
*The Rice Bomber is in Taiwanese and Mandarin with English subtitles.