“The Rice Bomber” – 2014 Asian American Int’l Film Festival Review

Taiwanese producer-turned-director Cho Li proves herself to be a world-class filmmaker with her third feature “The Rice Bomber,” which delves into her country’s recent history to deliver a fascinating examination of the evolution of a radical activist. Although Cho has made a film about an angry, political guy, this isn’t an angry movie. Cho instead adopts a coolly analytical tone, one which thoroughly dramatizes the political and social conditions which drove the film’s subject to the radical ends he used to protest governmental agricultural policies which hurt farmers, threatening their livelihood with preferences for foreign exports.

“The Rice Bomber” is based on true events, and on the book White Rice is Not a Bomb, the memoir of ecological activist Yang Rumen, whose compelling story forms the main narrative of this film. It begins in 2003, as a small homemade bomb, packed in a container of rice, is detonated by a bomb squad in a public park. The maker of the bomb, Yang Rumen (Huang Chien-wei) stands along with the crowd, smiling wryly at his own handiwork.

The film then backtracks to 1988, when Yang and his mentally challenged brother Cai (played as an adult by Michael Chang) are boys growing up in Changhua County in central Taiwan (also Cho Li’s hometown).  They are the grandsons of peasant farmers who are fighting governmental policies which institute very low prices for their crops. We quickly jump forward to 2000, when Rumen is doing his military service, and first displays his willingness to fight back against oppression when he violently retaliates against his hazing by fellow soldiers, just stopping short of killing them.

After his army discharge, Rumen returns to Changhua to live with his grandparents, to find that they have been subjected to government pressure to sell their land for development at very low prices. Factories are quickly springing up on the former farmlands, not only putting people out of work, but causing fatal accidents at construction sites, befalling people who fall into deep holes, and drown at these unsecured places.

Meanwhile, Rumen reconnects with an old childhood friend, a young woman known simply as “Troublemaker” (Nikki Hsieh). Troublemaker is now the grown daughter of a wealthy businessman who later becomes a member of Taiwan’s parliament. She’s become the self-styled black sheep of the family, becoming involved in radical politics and introducing Rumen to these ideas. Troublemaker is a brash, outspoken young woman, who is outwardly bold and confident, but secretly suffers psychological demons, as evidenced by the scars of wrist slashes from a suicide attempt. It would seem natural for them to have a romantic attachment, but their relationship remains rather platonic.

Taiwan’s entry into the WTO – which coincidentally, but pertinently given Rumen’s later actions, follows closely on the heels of the 9/11 US terrorist attacks – opens the country to floods of foreign imports, which further depress the lives of farmers. Rumen joins groups protesting these policies on the streets and outside government offices. Frustrated with the lack of response by the government, as well as the ineffectual strategies of the activists, Rumen begins taking action on his own. He begins building small bombs – all made with organic field materials – and plants them in public places: subways, street corners, restroom stalls, outside government offices. These bombs are not powerful enough to kill anyone; Rumen deliberately makes them not much worse than firecrackers. He also carefully labels them as bombs, and attaches notes with statements calling attention to the plight of farmers, and demands that the government take action to improve their economic situation and institute more favorable policies. These actions put him in conflict with Troublemaker, who favors more violently radical action. However, Troublemaker, for all her fiery rhetoric, is pretty much all talk; Rumen is the one who actually sticks his neck out to do something that gets the public’s attention.

“The Rice Bomber” is a beautifully made and deeply fascinating evocation of recent history that up to now has mostly been unheard of outside Taiwan. Instead of adopting an overheated, angry style of filmmaking mirroring its radical protagonist, Cho Li opts for a more measured, analytical approach, making canny use of news footage, which provides a panoramic view of the social and political conditions that formed Yang Rumen’s activism. Other commentators have faulted Cho for her stylistic choices, suggesting that she should have made a much more politically passionate movie, as if she was supposed to be some Taiwanese version of Oliver Stone. On the contrary, I believe such an approach would have been a mistake, becoming dangerously over the top and overwhelming the points she was setting out to make. It would also come across as patently false, as Cho has stated that she’s not a social activist; posing as one for filmmaking purposes would probably be an unwise choice.

Instead of an agit-prop propaganda piece, “The Rice Bomber” is instead an artful and highly accomplished work. Especially impressive is Korean cinematographer Cho Yong-kyou’s luminous work, vividly illuminating the great beauty of Taiwan’s countryside, providing a solid visual illustration of what’s at stake in the farmer’s struggles. Hwang Chen-wei is a quietly commanding presence as Yang Rumen, always compelling and believable as he depicts Rumen’s journey towards radical action. Nikki Hsieh (“Make Up,” “Honey Pu Pu”), the biggest star in the cast, overcomes an underwritten role to sensitively render a fiery, driven, yet hauntingly melancholy character. This is all given a solid musical underpinning by the fine score by Iranian composer Peyman Yazdanian – who’s previously worked with the likes of Abbas Kiarostami, Lou Ye, and Li Yu – which brings an intensely emotional undercurrent that forms a dynamic counterpoint to Cho Li’s cool and measured filmmaking.

“The Rice Bomber” screens July 27, 2 p.m., at Made in NY Media Center by IFP. For more information, and to purchase tickets, visit the Asian American International Film Festival (AAIFF) website.  It also screens at the San Diego Asian Film Festival on Nov. 10.