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With every renaissance comes the one piece that bucks the system, and in the case of Taiwan’s recent surge it’s Cho Li’s The Rice Bomber, a polished and earnest quasi-docudrama based on the exploits of early-00s agricultural activist Yang Rumen. With our collective good supply a hot topic on both consumer and documentary filmmaking (Food Inc., Farmageddon, The Harvest) fronts, the subject matter ensures a fair amount of attention for Yang’s admittedly compelling story. However, the sum doesn’t quite add up to the parts, as The Rice Bomber flits between tones and never generates the sense of urgency it should. That said the film’s combination of strong production value, timeliness and refreshing subject matter from Taiwan (no lovelorn teens with sexual identity crises or mopey existential angst) should give it a healthy life on the festival circuit.
Set during an economically turbulent period in Taiwan’s recent history, the film follows the small town boy from his life on a rice farm in the central Changhua region, to the military service that taught his the tricks of his trade and finally to full blown agitator trying to bring attention to the plight of the island’s farmers. As Taiwan enters the WTO and struggles beneath the burden of a newly globalized food supply, Yang Rumen (Huang Chien-Wei) transforms into an advocate for local farmers. Progressing from letters to the editor, to petitions at government agencies and finally his renowned rice bombs, Rumen (in reality now a major proponent and practitioner of organic farming after 7 years in prison) doesn’t want to hurt anybody, one of the reasons his 17 bombs (which spray rice like buckshot) are planted in reasonably empty spots. That’s not the case of his like-minded friend Troublemaker (Nikki Hsieh), a rich gangster’s daughter who prefers more militant action.
One of the oddities of Bomber is the tonal shifting that frequently stalls its momentum—narrative, emotional or otherwise. Cho inserts news footage to mark important agricultural milestones that are less elucidating than slightly jarring given the frequently sharp visuals and carefully tempered and understated scenes that precede them. In addition, Cho slips into the fantastical when Rumen chats with an imaginary friend, and raises questions as to whether Troublemaker is even real. Cap that off with a few too many montage sequences set to Peyman Yazdanian’s borderline bombastic score and Bomber’s oddly disconnected, unengaging vibe that makes connecting to the situation more cerebral than visceral, and the result is an ambitious statement film that clears its throat and taps you on the shoulder rather than hollers. With the exception of the music, of course.
Regardless the film’s minor flaws, which are wholly subjective, The Rice Bomber is producer Cho’s most accomplished film as a director, and she is clearly committed to the material. And fortunately cinematographer Cho Yong-Kyou comes to the rescue on more than one occasion, capturing the Taiwanese countryside with its bright blue sky and vibrant green fields in a classically unfussy way, making the contrasting dusty brown of the same fields (at the behest of new government policy) quietly heartbreaking—which is the only time the film really gets to hollering.
Producer Lee Lieh, Yeh Jufeng
Director Cho Li
Cast Huang Chien-Wei, Nikki Hsieh, Michael Chang
Screenwriter Hung Hung, Zin Do-Lan
Director of Photography Cho Yong-Kyou
Production Designer Lee Tian-jue
Music Peyman Yazdanian
Costume designer Wei Hsiang-Jung
Editor Qin Mai-Song, Liao Ching-Sung
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