Like wet dynamite, “The Rice Bomber” has trouble achieving the desired explosive momentum with its potentially incendiary history of Taiwan’s downtrodden farmers. Recounting the early life of ecological activist Yang Rumen, who went to jail for 17 bombing incidents staged to draw public attention to unfair agrarian policies, helmer Cho Li’s well-meaning attempt to provide a comprehensive picture results in a preachy first hour and a dearth of cinematic visuals. Fortunately for audiences, the intrinsically fascinating material on Yang trumps the dry narrative style, and he emerges as an extraordinary figure — romantic but eccentric, desperate yet driven. The film’s socially conscious message will find sympathy among indie fests and on educational channels.
The film is based on Yang’s book “White Rice Is Not a Bomb,” and the narrative is up to its ears in voiceover, quoting wordy excerpts of his ideals and philosophies. It also assumes considerable knowledge on the audience’s part about Taiwan politics, both regional and international, as evidenced by a bomb detonation in the opening scene for which no context is provided until more than an hour into the film.
Yang’s story proper starts in 1988, when he and mentally challenged brother Cai are just unruly tykes being raised in Erlin Town, Changhua County, by their peasant grandparents; already farmers are clashing with the government over produce prices. A quick jump forward in time sees Yang (Huang Chien-wei) fulfilling his military service, revealing his rebellious nature when he’s hazed by other cadets and impetuously retaliates.
In 2001, Yang is discharged and returns to Changhua, where the government is buying up farmland and building factories. Persuaded by his grandparents to give up their ancestral vocation, the young idler re-encounters a childhood friend, known only as “Troublemaker” (Nikki Hsieh), and they embark on a long, bumpy romance. The daughter of shifty legislator Hong Jung (Hsu Chia-jung), she calls herself a revolutionary and flirts with suicide while living off Daddy’s deep pockets. Yang, on the other hand, ekes out a living as a seaside fruit vendor. The film could have made more of their class differences, though a more glaring flaw is that it takes ages for them to develop any basic chemistry.
There follows a combination of factors, public and personal, that cause Yang’s social indignation to escalate, including his friendship with a teenager (Yang Peng-yu) abandoned by parents and society; Taiwan’s entry into the WTO, opening the floodgates for imported produce; and the gradual proliferation of factories, leading to fatal accidents. Cho’s documentary-like technique and reliance on expository news footage reflects a certain high-mindedness and avoidance of sensationalism, but it also squanders the picture’s dramatic potential.
The turning point in Yang’s life arrives more than an hour into the film, when he starts planting DIY bombs made with field ingredients in public places, accompanied by a protest message. Although re-creating so many of his protest antics doesn’t help advance the plot, his methods are so eccentric and audacious that they’re a delight to watch, and finally it becomes clear that every struggle or endeavor in his adult life has been building toward this mission.
Veteran thesp and acting instructor Huang (“Yang Yang”) limns Yang’s shifting moods and intellectual growth with intuitive directness. Hsieh (“Makeup,” “Honey Pu Pu”) doesn’t get enough room to expand on a character who’s not particularly likable or sharply defined; only the scenes of ideological clash between her and her father allow her to express her fiery nature.
Cho, who has longtime experience as a producer, ensures that craft contributions are all solid. Korean lenser Cho Yong-kyo delivers some breathtaking compositions of rice fields and wetlands, and a melodious score by Iranian composer Peyman Yazdanian (“The Wind Will Carry Us,” “Summer Palace,” “Buddha Mountain”) adds warmth and emotional heft to even the flatter scenes.