In 2015, the Venice Days Fedeora award went to “Underground Fragrance” the debut film from Chinese director Pengfei, a regular collaborator of Tsai Ming-Liang and co-writer of Tsai’s “Stray Dogs.” In evocative, elegantly controlled scenes it detailed subterranean life in overcrowded, urban China, where even a glimpse of daylight is a luxury denied to many on the lower end of the social spectrum. By striking contrast, Pengfei’s lovely sophomore film “The Taste of Rice Flower,” also a Venice Days title, is set in a sparsely populated rural region near the Burmese border, where fields of joltingly vibrant green stretch to the horizon under enormous skies, and the billowing dust trail from a single speeding car can look like the stuffing spilling out from a tear in the landscape. But don’t be fooled by the ostensible opposition: as much as “Fragrance” was about the fragility of human connection in stratified, striving Beijing, “Taste” is about much the same thing against a different backdrop, suggesting that whatever the surroundings, isolation, miscommunication and mysterious moments of grace abound in a China characterized by ceaseless conflict between tradition and modernity.
Ye Nan (Yang Ze, also star of “Fragrance”) a young woman from the Dai ethnic minority, is returning to her tiny village after a stint in Shanghai to earn money to support her father and young daughter, Nan Hang (Ye Bule). But she has been gone long enough for her daughter to grow cold and rebellious, and for rumors of “shameful acts” committed in the city to make it back to local gossips. Nan Hang, usually in trouble at school for stealing or disrupting class is surly and unimpressed by her mother’s return despite Ye Nan’s city-clicker sophistication: her neat, tailored clothes, new car and taste for imported butter cookies.
Very loosely, the film follows Ye Nan’s efforts to reconnect with the girl, though often she seems to be as much at fault as her daughter for the awkwardness of their relationship. Then, when Nan Hang’s best friend and partner in childish crime, Nan Xianglu (Ye Men) falls mysteriously ill just after the girls are accused of stealing from the temple, the local elders decide the matter must be brought before the Mountain God. In a bizarre yet oddly prosaic ritual, the deity, apparently possessing an old woman’s body, coughs and splutters her way through the libations left for her, cautions people outside not to step on her invisible horse and irritatedly refuses to help. The old Gods, as is made clear in one pilgrimage scene, are closed for business, and the newer ones have yet to properly arrive.
The village is essentially living through an identity crisis. The background chatter to the slight but heartfelt mother/daughter story is about a nearby airport that’s due to open soon, as groups of men clustered around TVs or fire pits, smoking cigarettes through bamboo bongs discuss how the local region can best market its traditional culture for the expected influx of tourists. It’s a town without parents, many of whom have been forced to go to cities to work, and have, like Ye Nan, left their children to be raised by their grandparents, so the generational divide is wide. The approaching Water Sprinkling festival sees older villagers in bright traditional dress practicing their dances and pageantry, while the younger generation lolls about on the temple steps because it’s the only place they can pick up wi-fi.
Liao Penjung’s sedate cinematography unfolds in calm close-ups, often resting squarely on the minutest of Ye Nan’s reactions, and ultra-wide shots, in which the camera is set far from the actors, who knit into the intricate interiors and crisply scenic exteriors alike. There’s a reserve to Pengfei’s favored style of acting, a stillness that can almost become a stiltedness, which lends individual scenes a self-contained, low-key theatricality. Yet despite this cool, somewhat distanced perspective (leavened with moments of offbeat observational humor), the relationships are drawn with compassion, and the arcane customs of this ancient community notwithstanding, the emotional stakes are inherently relatable and deeply sympathetic. Beautiful, wise and lyrically resonant, “The Taste of Rice Flower” is rigorously unsentimental, but its heart is bright with life, like a swooning dance of devotion performed in a limestone cave; like a butterfly held in a light, firm grasp.