“Rice People” is a delicate, low-key, beautifully lensed study of a rural Cambodian family that has the beauty but emotional distance of a moving tableau. First feature by Paris-based Cambodian director Rithy Panh should raise ripples on the fest circuit and be appreciated by enthusiasts of east Asian cinema, but its theatrical harvest looks iffy.
Ranh has taken a novel by Malay author Shahnon Ahmad and transferred it to a Cambodian setting, using one complete cycle of rice-growing to portray the tragic fragmentation of a poor rural family.
In a remote village, Poeuv lives with his wife, Om, and their seven daughters. Poeuv worries about his declining acreage and Om worries about what would happen if the sole man in the family was incapacitated. The group live permanently on a fragile economic balance dictated by the success or failure of their annual crop.
One day Poeuv is poisoned by a thorn in the foot and eventually dies. Om takes on the burden of working in the rice fields as well as running the family. She becomes increasingly paranoid that her kids aren’t pulling their weight.
The other villagers finally decide she needs treatment in town, and lock her in a cage. Eldest daughter Sokha takes over and eventually brings in the crop.
Panh keeps the pic’s focus rigidly on his two subjects, the family unit and its umbilical, life-or-death link with rice-growing. There’s little attempt to delve deep into individual family tensions: Only the father and mother emerge as distinct (if low-key) personalities, and none of the daughters emerges as an individual in her own right.
Instead, Panh lays out a beautifully lensed portrait of family/village life, work in the fields, upsets along the way and communal relationships.
Pic’s exceedingly low on dramatic pulse but manages to engage the attention across its two-hour-plus running time. For those prepared to go with Panh’s easy rhythm, “Rice People” brings home the goods. Sole moment of eye-opening drama is a dream sequence of the village being torched by the Khmer Rouge, a minor nod to Southeast Asian realities in a film that consciously exists in a political and time vacuum.
Shooting took place some 30 miles from Phnom Penh in the village of Kamreang under constant guard from Khmer Rouge guerrillas.
Technically, pic is a delight to watch, with the blowup from 16mm almost unnoticeable, smooth editing and an atmospherically monodic score by New York-born, Paris-based Marc Marder. Non-pro cast is fine.