Fearful Symmetries

Witness a machine turn coffee into pointless ramblings...

21 April, 2010

WFF '10: Sawan baan na (Agrarian Utopia)



A commenter noted at another review that they felt that the film festival guide's description of Cooking History was way off base and I agreed with them. However, the guide hit the nail on the head when it came to Sawan baan na (Agrarian Utopia). The shots of the landscape certainly remind one of Terrence Malick's work and the movie does have a documentary feel.

We see the plight of two Thai families who are sharecroppers and scrape together an existence from the land. The two fathers complain about their poverty, debts owed to the bank, and the meager government loan schemes which do little but push them further into debt. They feel used and helpless. From here we get a look at their lives out in the rice paddies. The families live in shacks without power or plumbing. And working the paddies is back-breaking work. We see the families planting and harvesting without the aid of modern technology and instead try to deal with a temperamental water buffalo. Mushrooms are gathered for extra money. The Michael Pollan crowd would be pleased to see the families catching a snake to roast and grabbing honey straight from the beehive. To say that life is tough for these people is an understatement and some scenes of political protest that take place in a city show that the poor farmers are not at the top of the government's list of priorities.

Their lives are contrasted with that of another landowner nearby who is a professor clad in spectacles and pony tail. Like many hippies here in America, he has gone back to the land. He is trying his hand at subsistence agriculture. When the families' landlord tells them that he must sell the land in order to make car payments, the professor offers them the use of some of his land but his charity comes with strings attached such as that they cannot use chemicals of any kind. It all has to be "natural".

While there are some scenes, such as of children playing in the mud, with detract from the harsh existence these families eek out, the movie concentrates on how rough their lives are. This is certainly one of those films where some knowledge of the country in which it was made would help understanding it. I get the general point but I think that knowing more about Thailand – its government, its political movements, and overall economic situation – would help illuminate the protest scenes as well as why the fathers have so little faith in the government.

Even so, I enjoyed Agrarian Utopia. Stylistically I found it quite interesting. In addition to the beautiful shots of the sky and rice paddies, I noted that it was shot with a very high frame rate. It has that hyper-real look where you can see every droplet of water – like the opening of Saving Private Ryan. This takes away from the illusion that what you're watching is strictly a documentary but it also plays on the irony of the movie's title. Just as what we witness is anything but a utopia, the look of the film conveys the idea that it is unattainable. Utopias exist only in movies.

|| Palmer, 12:34 PM

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