Friday, July 25, 2014

AAIFF ’14: The Rice Bomber

He represented the dark side of agrarianism in a way the Unabomber could relate to, but at least Yang Rumen took precautions to avoid injuries. The fully pardoned bomb-maker turned organic food activist’s creation story is chronicled in Cho Li’s The Rice Bomber (trailer here), which screens during the 2014 Asian American International Film Festival in New York.

By working class standards, Yang’s father did okay selling chickens in the city, but the young man always identified with his rice farming grandparents. He spent his formative years on their farm and it is there he returns after his military discharge. Yang almost went Full Metal Jacket on the NCOs who persistently bullied him, suggesting he is wound rather tightly.

With Taiwan’s rural economy stagnating, Yang migrates back to the city, becoming a street hawker. That is where he meets a preteen aboriginal competitor and reconnects with his childhood sweetheart, “Troublemaker.” She lives off her gangster-politician father, but fancies herself a revolutionary. Yet, she balks whenever Yang asks her to assist his new friend’s three younger siblings. Slowly, Yang’s environmental and class consciousness grows, but his engagement takes a quantum leap when tragedy strikes. At least, he carefully labels his bombs and judiciously minimizes their potency.

For a film that starts with a bomb disposal scene, Rice is surprisingly talky and cerebral. Clearly, it would rather discuss agricultural policy than indulge in a car chase, but its analysis basically boils down to “they are out to get the farmers.” Arguably though, most of the leftist demonstrators come across just as kneejerk and clueless as the government bureaucrats. The intermittent time shifts do not exactly do any favors for clarity either. Nevertheless, there is something fascinating about Yang’s slow descent into mad-ish-ness, even when the hardscrabble realities depicted on-screen clash with Peyman Yazdanian’s sentimental score.

Indeed, Cho’s dispassionate approach is likely to leave many viewers cold, but the lack of cheap grandstanding is rather refreshing. There are the odd moments here and there, such as Yang marveling at the cache of guns Troublemaker has scrounged, for no practical purpose. Yet, it mostly feels docu-real.

As Yang, Huang Chien-wei slow burns like a champion, convincingly showing his evolution from victim to self-styled avenger. Nikki Hsieh’s Troublemaker also consistently keeps viewers off-balance, while Michael Chang is admirably earnest and understated as Yang’s mildly underdeveloped younger brother, Tung-tsai.

Having previously helmed the underappreciated adultery thriller Zoom Hunting (a 2010 AAIFF selection), Cho once again shows a knack for subverting genre expectations. While Rice probably will not radicalize any viewers who were not already teetering on the brink, it definitely captures the messy bedlam of contemporary history. Consistently interesting (but not for those looking for simple stories and simplistic take-aways), The Rice Bomber screens tomorrow (7/26) at the Village East and Sunday (7/27) at the Made in NY Media Center, as part of this year’s AAIFF.