Play It Again

in 43rd International Film Festival Rotterdam

by Sasja Koetsier

An angler in a paddy fieldis the sole character in both the opening and the closing scene of The Songs of Rice (Pleng khong kao). It is not difficult to think of him as the alter ego of director Uruphong Raksasad, preying for fish as he is for images.

For his second feature (or his third, if you count his feature-length compilation of short films Stories From the North (2006) as one), Raksasad revisits the northern Thai province of Chiang Rai, his native soil and a place that has served in recent years as backdrop, protagonist and subject for most of his cinematic work.

More than being the actual subject of the film, rice provides a framework along which the images are tied one to another. A ring-shaped frame, as the cultivation of the cropalways returns to the point where it started, to renew and repeat itself over and over again. This cycle is the catalyst for all events depicted in the film: whether an actual part of the rice-growing process, such as the ploughing of the flooded field; or a ritual that marks a defining moment, like the building of arice-stalktemple to celebrate the harvest.

In the string of events, the film portraysa community largely defined by the production of atreasured grain. It shapes their landscape, determines which livestock they live alongside, dictates when the land needs tending and even when it’s time to party. Festivities, varying from an ox race to a rice ceremony, form a central part of the film, showing the community’s relations being established right there. Still, the filmmaker is equally interested in what happens on the margins of these events — and seemingly on the margins of the community — where he includes a group of musicians, partially in drag, performing on the street.

Until now I have failedto mention that The Songs of Ricequite simply looks gorgeous. The cinematography is excellent, and yet that is not the only reason why watching this film is such an enthralling experience. A description of one memorable scene hopefully serves to explain the film’s appeal.

While the villagers come together for music, food and drinks, farm boys prepare their piece de résistance. A huge single-spokemetal wheel transforms into spectacular firework when it is set ablaze with fuel-drenched cloths and starts to roar and spin like crazy as it launches into the air. Just like the young men, who retrieve the wheel from a nearby field to send it up again and again, the filmmaker cannot get enough of the sight of it. And by capturing not only the spectacle, but also the excitement of the small crowd, he leftmewishing for more too. I shared in the thrill, and watched with fascination even whena rash experiment resulted inthe wheel flying headlong out of control before its final crash — sheer luck preventing anyone from being hurt.

Such repetition provides The Songs of Rice with rhythm, as does Raksasad’s use of slow motion to underscore moments of elation. One moment that sticks in the mind is a shot of an elderly woman swinging a hoop around her hips with delightful agility.

In fact The Songs of Rice is such a happy film that it borderson the nostalgic. By going back to the scene of his own childhood memories, Raksasad seeks to revive the reminiscence of a world that many have known as a kid: a universe where essentially all is good. What makes him ultimately so convincing in is the plain, observing gaze that he seems to have retained from this period of life. Film is his play: as serious to him as it is irresistible to us.

Edited by Tara Judah