Rice People

01/31/2010

Cambodia / 1994 / Khmer

Directed by Rithy Panh

With Peng Phan, Mom Soth, Chhim Naline

Still from 'Rice People'Om and her husband Poeuv are farmers in rural Cambodia who struggle to survive off the yield of their small rice paddy. In addition to themselves, they have seven daughters to support. Rithy Panh’s Rice People, an adaptation of Malaysian novelist Shahnon Ahmad’s book Ranjau Sepanjang Jalan, follows the family throughout the tribulations of a growing season. The titular people are virtually made from rice, in more ways than one; it forms their nutrition, and also their essence. And it is remarkable to think that the inert plant on which they rely is so greedy for water, for care and constant attention, while the people themselves live such lives of deprivation in its service.

Early on in the film Om has a brush with death in the form of a cobra bite. She survives it, but little time passes before Poeuv is felled by a thorn underfoot, becomes unable to work, and eventually dies from the ensuing infection. In these two experiences we see both husband and wife incapacitated by something small, insidious, and wild. The lives that they lead exist, as in most agrarian cultures, in an antagonistic dynamic with nature, as they work daily to attain some measure of control over their surroundings. Poeuv’s death seems especially wretched when taken in regards to what he has so far lived through, including an escape from the forces of the Khmer Rouge more than a decade earlier.

Still from 'Rice People'With the loss of Poeuv, Om begins a descent into utter irrelevance that becomes more painful and unseemly with each passing day. The husband and wife, helped by their children, once formed a relatively stable economic unit, and with the breakdown of that stability, the woman loses her efficacy and protection against the obstacles that she encounters. Her formerly strong engagement with the concrete imperatives of her world gives way as she withdraws from reality, exhibiting what the others in her village quite accurately consider madness, as she applies lots of makeup to her face and wanders the fields searching for her husband. Sakha, her eldest daughter, goes out into the night to retrieve her. Village boys chase her as if she were a blackbird, and eventually a large and derisive crowd gathers. She can no longer work, and finally those relatives and neighbors who wish her to come to no harm confine her to a bamboo cage in her own house.

Director Panh presents, with his principal character, a woman driven feral by grief and the crushing responsibilities imposed on her by family and society. With Om’s deterioration it is Sakha who emerges as the hero of the story, picking up her mother’s role and taking control of the rice harvest. All this against a cultural backdrop of girls being treated as burdens or simply tossed away as newborns. She saves the rest of the family, but Om is too far-gone to comprehend it. Panh is, in a broad sense, showing a society disconnected from its roots in agriculture, a situation we see reflected in the uncertainty that marks the main characters’ way of life, along with the deep indifference and lack of assistance with which they are faced. One could well consider them the lifeblood of the nation, the custodians of its traditional methods, lore, and lifestyle. And yet, following Cambodia’s civil strife, a war with Vietnam, and the rule of a genocidal, maniacal regime, it is these people especially who have taken the longest time to resurface from the ashes. All they needed was to regain the resources that would sustain them – a meager request whose fulfillment would grant them control over their own destiny. But, as we see in this film, the intervening forces are myriad.

Still from 'Rice People'In a more astute way Panh is describing the problems faced by rural women, and attacking those social ills. Om, so far reliant on her husband’s help, is explicitly kept from succeeding by her culture and withdraws completely. Sakha provides a remedy for this situation, representing the youth who can possibly take the reigns of the nation’s future and reconnect with the land, all the while exemplifying independence and generosity.

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