'Taste of Rice Flower' ('Mi Hua Zhi Wei'): Film Review | Venice 2017

Courtesy of Venice International Film Festival
A beautiful, bittersweet tale about belonging.

Chinese filmmaker Pengfei's second effort at Venice Days revolves around a woman's struggle to reconnect with her daughter as well as her own roots as part of the Dai ethnic minority in the Sino-Burmese borderlands.

Boasting beautiful landscapes, brightly lit interiors and bubbly characters, Chinese director Pengfei has delivered a second feature markedly different from his first. Set in a southwestern Chinese village, Taste of Rice Flower offers luminous, pastoral drama in stark contrast to the inner-city despair running through his dark and claustrophobic 2015 debut, Underground Fragrance.

While more straightforward and less visually idiosyncratic than Underground FragranceTaste of Rice Flower remains equally vivid in depicting the struggle for people stuck on the margins of a country undergoing rapid transformation in the 21st century. Centering his film around a young woman's return to her home village and her attempt to rekindle the bonds she once had with her clan and her community, Pengfei has delivered a contemplative portrait of how the Chinese rural underclass — and, specifically, those from an ethnic minority — accommodate themselves with the changes around them.

Making its bow at the Venice Days program, Taste of Rice Flower should be able to repeat Underground Fragrance's continent-hopping travels after its premiere (also at Venice Days) two years ago. With his film tackling quite a few topical themes — the problems with China's rural children who grew up without their city-bound parents, or the identity issues for ethnic minorities in the country's far-flung corners — Pengfei should also expect quite a few challenging meet-the-audience sessions during his festival tour.

In Underground Fragrance, the criminologist-turned-actor Ying Ze plays a pole dancer struggling to break out of the confines of her job and the underground room she calls home in Beijing. Her character in Taste of Rice Flower — which she also co-wrote with Pengfei — could be seen as a continuation of that. Here, she plays Ye Nan, a woman returning to her ancestral village after spending a few years working away from home. She might be desperate to get out of the city, but the city has definitely eaten into her: She is dressed in neat clothes, drives a nice car and snacks on Danish butter cookies.

As Ye Nan drives past cows and farmers on dirt roads criss-crossing a ravishingly pristine countryside, she seems to be very much at odds with the rustic landscapes she once left behind. Not really: The villagers, from the Dai ethnic minority, are now very much aware of the trappings of modern society and their singular position in that value system. During a cultural performance, the middle-aged female dancers moan about having to dress up in exotic tribal wear. Electric tricycles are with equipped with solar panels. The children, meanwhile, are kitted out in shirts, jeans and backpacks as they fiddle with their smartphones on their way to school.

Settling back into home — a house her father (Yang Zujiao) has refurnished into an inn — Ye Nan is forced to confront problems she thought she has left in town. Uncouth men dream aloud over beer and peanuts about the way they could tap into the opportunities which would follow with the opening of an airport nearby. The kids, meanwhile, turn out to be brats whose reverence and manners have dissipated in the face of online games and the onslaught of commodities; one of them actually tries to bribe her teacher to change seats — and then steals the key to his motorcycle as revenge when he refuses.

The girl in question, Nan Hang (Ye Bule), is actually Ye Nan's daughter — an oft-misbehaving child angry for her mother's long absence. The girl is not alone: She is just one of the many "left-behind children" in her village lacking social and moral direction because of the lack of parental guidance and protection. While Ye Nan's protracted effort to mend her relationship with Nan Hang already suffices in exploring this theme, the matter is brought to even sharper focus when Nan Hang's classmate, Xianglu (Ye Men), falls ill. With no educated adults around, the elders insist they could cure the girl with their shamanistic rituals — something which eventually leads to tragedy.

Simple as it is, Taste of Rice Flower doesn't offer sloppy moral judgments and hackneyed melodrama. Refusing to cede ground to convenient exoticism, Pengfei acknowledges the hybrid culture and values emerging out of communities where traditions and technology clash — a collision illustrated often to deadpan but undoubtedly hilarious effect. The young, Paris-educated director also has to thank his veteran cinematographer Liao Pen-jung (who lensed most of Tsai Ming-liang's films) for helping to evoke beauty and meaning to the unlikeliest of objects and settings — a sizzling rice-cake in a wok, for example, or a soft drink can in a cave. A play with contrasts and conflicts, Taste of Rice Flower is beautiful, bittersweet, astute and agreeable.

Production companies: Shanghai Uniglobe Film & Culture, Mishka Productions
Cast: Ying Ze, Ye Bule, Ye Men

Director: Pengfei
Screenwriters: Pengfei, Ying Ze
Producers: Pengfei, Liu Jing, Rebecca Ho
Executive producers: Liu Jing, Hou Jian
Director of photography: Liao Pen-jung
Art director: Liao Huei-li
Costume designer: Wang Chia-hui
Music: Keiichi Suzuki, Cha Ainan
Editor: Chen Powen
Casting: Guo Jizhe
Venue: Venice Film Festival
Sales: Go Global

In Mandarin and Dai

102 minutes