The Docu-drama is a dangerous genre for me to cover. It is well documented I am not a fan of musicals (with the occasional exception), but they don’t tend to make me angry. Bio-pics are always fraught with danger for me, but the Docu-drama is one style of film-making that has the potential to make my blood boil. All films that attempt to tell a true story have to balance fact against entertainment. Heck, this is true of all sorts of media, but my worry is that when you see something up on the big screen, it gets some kind of legitimacy, especially when it is stylistically inter-cut with real documentary footage. So when I popped on this Taiwanese effort I was a little tense to say the least.
“The Rice Bomber” is the story of Yang Ru-men (Huang Chien-wei), who achieved at least local notoriety in the early 2000’s. Born into a poor agricultural community during a time when Taiwan’s entry into the World Trade Organisation, along with the modernisation of the country led to a period of struggle for Farmers. Cheap imported Rice, and the desire to convert farmland into other types of development lead to a situation where those who made a living from the land were finding any kind of prosperity next to impossible. Yang isn’t the sharpest knife in the drawer, but he clearly has a big heart, caring for his disabled brother (Micheal Chang), as well as helping his impoverished farmer grandparents. After a stint in the army, he reunites with a childhood friend, a girl known as Troublemaker (Nikki Hsieh), a rich daughter of a local politician, who rails against authority with slogans of revolution. He also befriends an aboriginal boy (Yang Peng-yu) who looks after his younger siblings alone, on the edge of poverty. The death of this boy, along with the influence of Troublemaker, and the general social situation lead Yang to slowly become policiticised. After trying writing to the Newspapers and banging his head against labyrinthine bureaucracy, he uses his Army training to embark on a bombing campaign. Actually, his bombs are more symbolic than actually dangerous – only a couple of the 17 actually go off, and they are placed in remote places. No-one is harmed, but his message is getting out there. Desperate to get caught to be able to provide a real voice for his actions, he ends up turning himself into the authorities.
I had never heard of this story before, although Yang does appear to be a folk hero of sorts to Taiwan’s farming community. His imprisonment was actually cut short, and he has both written a book about his story, and become a mover in the Organic Farming movement. He is probably one of the most benign serial bombers in history. So he is a fairly interesting subject, plus he still is relevant today both in terms of progress and how to protest in modern day Asia. It is a shame therefore that the film doesn’t quite work.
Visually? it is great. Rural Taiwan is shown in glorious Blues and muted Browns and lush Greens. The documentary style camera placement adds an element of voyeurism and gravitas to the film. Sometimes the soundtrack is a little noisy, but fundamentally it is fine. Huang is also great, a brooding yet endearing presence who you actually feel growing as a person as the film progresses.
Sadly though, the film has some serious flaws. It takes a very “bitty” approach to Yang’s early life, a glimpse of childhood, a glimpse of his army days, and so on. Whilst they are important to the overall narrative, they mean the first hour of the film seems to stop and start, it lacks real flow. The inserted bits of newsreel do add context, but one feels the same effect could have been created via the script, they just take the viewer out of the moment. The same is true for the occasional unnecessary montages of events that we only saw a few minutes ago.
Then we have some really odd moments. The character of Troublemaker never really goes anywhere. The actual nature of her relationship with Yang for example is never really made that clear. I am not sure if she is a dramatic construction for this movie alone, or if she is a real person (the film is based on Yang’s own book)? Things get doubly troubling when the film decides to suggest she might just be a figment of his imagination. I am not averse to a little bit of Tyler Durden to help explain a characters thought processes, but we already have his monologues narrating large portions of the film, as well as moments where he literally has conversations with an imaginary version of himself. Now I love Nikki Hsieh, every film is better for her being in it. But she is not only underused here, but her character seems to serve no unique purpose. And if we are meant to question her existence, then how do we rationalise most of the story of the Aboriginal kid? Suddenly we are seriously having to consider the sanity of our lead character, which really lessons the message of the film.
So when the first hour of a film is up for debate about how accurate it is, how do we consider the second half? Somehow I feel again there is a lost opportunity here. We watch him make a few bombs, see some get found, see a couple go off. But I never sense that there is a city in panic here. Or some kind of Police investigation to find him. People just hang around and watch them get exploded by the bomb squad from a few metres away. Yet, apparently his crimes were enough for a 7 plus year jail sentence.
Not only is there a terrible sense of anti-climax about the very act that made the guy’s name, but everything seems to just stop once he gives himself up. I wanted to know what happened to his campaign afterwards. Did anything happen? What did people outside of his circle think? How did this affect his relationship with people such as his brother? We do see he got released as part of some national amnesty, but how his life had changed due to his incarceration is unknown. I wanted to know how he made the leap from protesting against imported rice, to being a proponent of Organic Farming. Heck, I would not have minded finding out the story of how he actually married his step-sister after his release! Maybe her relationship with him whilst in prison could have been a better device than Troublemaker?
I have had a bit of a rant I know. Docu-drama’s always do this to me. But for all it’s faults, I am still giving this one a recommended. It was an interesting story, that made me want to go and find out more. I might have issues with some of the way the story was told, but that doesn’t take away from much of what the film is trying to achieve.
And if I have piqued your interest? “The Rice Bomber” is going to be shown as part of the 2015 Chinese Visual Festival [Declaring an interest, the Festival Director is Easternkicks very own James Mudge]. Anyway, the full festival schedule and tickets are available on the Chinese Visual Festival website. There will be more coverage both here and on Easternkicks in the following weeks.