CHIANG RAI – Since he left Bangkok and returned to his farming-family roots in the northern Thai city of Chiang Rai, documentary-maker Uruphong Raksasad has seen in a remarkable cinematic harvest: his first two films, Stories from the North and Agrarian Utopia, have traveled the world widely (with over 50 appearances at festivals and foreign showcases between them, including screenings at New York’s Museum of Moving Art and Anthology Film Archives) and placed him probably alongside Apichatpong Weerasethakul as Thailand’s most critically acclaimed filmmakers today.
But the final installment of his self-styled “rice trilogy” is a sign of diminishing returns. While comprising lush imagery on a par with the previous two entries — a feature crucial to its winning the Fipresci award at the International Film Festival Rotterdam last week, with the critics’ jury praising the “immersive sensory experience” created by its “strong cinematography” — The Songs of Rice smacks of lyrical over-cultivation of the same crop. If Stories is a symphony in nine parts/shorts and Agrarian Utopia a full-blown opera, Songs is more like a coda, a pleasing piece driven by an afore-appeared refrain, rather than a desire to expand on unexplored themes.
Veering away from the sharp social commentary in the first two films (which, together, could be seen as a j’accuse against modern, urban capitalism’s encroachment into Thailand’s traditional social fabric) and the experimentation shown in Agrarian Utopia (in which Uruphong blends fiction with reality, as he recruits two struggling farming families to play even more destitute versions of themselves as mere tenants of rice paddies), The Songs of Rice offers a collection of vignettes from the countryside. Sequences that zero in on details — people, animals, insects and natural elements appearing in the fields — play next to shots of processions and buffalo-racing contests in slow motion; swooping Terrence Malick-like camerawork about kids hunting moles in the fields is followed by more traditional documentary footage of people launching firework-propelled ring-like rockets into the sky.
The film boasts a frantic soundtrack, with natural noise competing for room with snippets from the radio (advertisements for supermarkets and bank loans juggle for bandwidth with pop ballads) and also the whoops, hollers and percussion-heavy music at the carnivals and feasts. But it all comes as if it’s on shuffle play, just as the images are. Impressionistic to the point of being unstructured, The Songs of Rice is a set of beautiful individual numbers arriving without the coherence to bring everything together, or the context with which to properly understand the farmers’ vocation as both a precious way of life and an art in itself.