Pic gently weaves its way around a community of Thai rice farmers struggling to make ends meet.

Pleasing to the eye and quietly affecting, “Agrarian Utopia” gently weaves its way around a community of Thai rice farmers struggling to make ends meet despite harvests of plenty. A promising narrative debut by young helmer Uruphong Raksasad, the pic focuses on traditional lifestyles threatened by economic forces, making it a worthy companion piece to his 2006 docu, “Stories From the North.” Digital feature shared the Netpac award at Brisbane and is sure to notch many more fest miles. Specialized broadcast slots are possible.

A farmer’s son who was educated in Bangkok, Raksasad quit the big city in 2004 to make films in his rural homeland outside the northern city of Chiang Mai. His deep affinity for the land and its people is evident in every frame; if he can adopt a more muscular approach to editing and acquire a 35mm camera to fully do justice to the region’s natural beauty, Raksasad has the potential to produce some very fine and much more exportable work in his field of interest.

Cast with nonpro locals convincingly playing fictional characters, the story revolves around rice growers Duen (Prayad Jumma) and Nuek (Somnuek Mungmeung). Crippled by usurious interest rates on too-easily obtained bank loans, the duo decide to pool resources and work a single patch. Results are grim. Fields may be fertile but prices are low, forcing them to catch frogs and snakes to keep families fed.

The struggle to stave off eviction is punctuated by beautiful footage of rice production at every stage of the process. The loving eye trained on this traditional method of agriculture will prompt many viewers to think about what actually brings food to the table and ask why market forces in the global food economy are making farmers like Duen and Nuek obsolete.

At several points, the characters are shown watching real political rallies in the big city. The enormous difficulties they face are put into sharp context during fiery agriculture-related speeches by candidates including Samak Sundaravej, leader of the People Power Party and briefly Thai prime minister in 2008.

Although several scenes are unnecessarily prolonged, and wives Sai (Sai Jumma) and Kom (Nikorn Mungmeung) get short shrift, the pic remains absorbing, and carries a welcome note of optimism in the form of neighboring farmer Uncle Prom (Promchok Boonkamton). A lively, long-haired widower, Prom has dramatically increased his prospects of self-sufficiency and sustainability by rejecting chemical fertilizers and adopting organic techniques.

Lovely shots of children at play in muddy paddies and striking time-lapse photography of electrical storms and the changing of the seasons are among the film’s visual highlights. Other tech credits are fine.

Agrarian Utopia

Thailand

Production

An Extra Virgin production, with the support of the Hubert Bals Fund of the Intl. Film Festival Rotterdam and the Office of Contemporary Art and Culture, Thailand. (International sales: Extra Virgin, Bangkok.) Produced by Pimpaka Towira. Directed, written, edited by Uruphong Raksasad.

Crew

Camera (color, HD) Raksasad; sound, Raksasad; assistant director, Nitivat Cholvanichsiri; associate producer, Mai Meksawan. Reviewed at Brisbane Film Festival (Asia Pacific), Aug. 5, 2009. (Also in Vancouver, Vienna film festivals.) Running time: 122 MIN.

With

Prayad Jumma, Somnuek Mungmeung, Sai Jumma, Nikorn Mungmeung, Sompong Jumma, Promchok Boonkamton.
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