Whether by design or circumstance, this June has become Thai Cinema Month in New York, with an array of the city’s art houses and museums boasting otherwise hard-to-see gems from the Thai film renaissance that began in the late 1990s. But the biggest cause for celebration is the belated arrival of two films by Uruphong Raksasad—Agrarian Utopia (2009), running at Anthology Film Archives June 10 – 15, and Stories from the North (2006), which plays Museum of the Moving Image on June 5—whose formal ingenuity and geopolitical urgency make the familiar generalizations about national cinemas seem quaint, if not willfully narrow.
Born to farmers in the northern Chiang Rai province, Uruphong, like many young people in rural Thailand, migrated to Bangkok to study and work. After college, and a few post-production gigs in the commercial film industry, he returned home to document life in the region of his upbringing, free from studio interference. He reacquainted himself with Chiang Rai’s dramatic landscapes and syrupy rhythms by directing the nine shorts that would eventually compose Stories from the North, a feature-length compendium of vignettes set among the province’s verdant farmlands.
With the film’s opening segment, “March of Time,” Uruphong leads us along the path he took from city to country: he shows us an urban shopping center in jaundiced neon light, packed with shoppers who traverse the space in a ghostly slow motion. New angles supersede one another in equally slow dissolves, as a country wind wails in real time on the soundtrack, before the image catches up—delivering us, in a series of deliberate zooms linked by the same eerie transitions, to the subtropical farmland in which this sound originates. With sound that fastens urban to rural, Uruphong announces the region as a vital part of the nation’s economy rather than an idyllic respite from its demands.
Throughout the nine shorts that follow, Uruphong favors incident over story: a farmer shoots blindly at a nighttime intruder, children tell ghost stories, and old women kvetch. But mostly people work. A kind of chapbook, Stories from the North traces no larger narrative or thematic arc. Carried in on the wind, these odd little shorts pass before us like tumbleweeds, spirited away as mysteriously as they arrive. About halfway through, it becomes clear that the rich details Uruphong has proffered are refusing to accumulate. Each vignette starts from scratch, a new attempt to describe the same simple and mysterious thing: how people live in this place today.
That basic question is one that animates nearly every observational documentary. But Uruphong staged these scenes and hired area non-professionals to perform them. His camera approaches them as documentary subjects, ultimately leaving them all the self-contained opacity that implies. The shots are typically quite long, the camera usually static. Uruphong’s editing takes a measured pace, each composition held for a hard, searching look at a reality which will not divulge its deeper meaning.
In Agrarian Utopia, Uruphong once again pictures a fictional scenario through a documentary lens. With a plot of rented farmland, he hired two dispossessed area families, the Jummas and Mungmeungs, and put them to work tending the soil and, for the camera, performing slightly modified versions of themselves: rice cultivators forced into tenancy by ballooning debt. Uruphong follows them through one rice harvest and into a second, cut short after sowing when the landlord announces he must sell the property to keep up with his car payments.
Uruphong’s mingling of fact with fiction has brought him the attention of North American critics, who have been quick to situate these films within the wave of documentary-fiction hybrids that has come to define the contemporary moment in world cinema. Stories from the North appears at MOMI as part of an abbreviated version of Dennis Lim’s program for the 2010 Flaherty Seminar, which set Uruphong alongside celebrated documentary cross-breeders Lisandro Alonso, Michael Glawogger, and Eugenio Polgovsky. For Cinema Scope, Robert Koehler crystallized the formal and political implications of this “new nonfiction” in an essay he titled “Agrarian Utopias/Dystopias” after Uruphong’s film, fixing it as one of this tendency’s most visible symbols.
Though apt, this placement has obscured as much as it has revealed. Agrarian Utopia lands much closer to the fiction end of the spectrum than the earlier work. There Uruphong’s extra-documentary interventions furnished the camera occurrences to which it could not otherwise access, but Uruphong himself remained on the outside, acting as a documentary conscious offering only partial glimpses of a subject whose true dimensions are left unknown. For Agrarian Utopia, he constructed a scenario large enough to let us inside. From the film’s outset, Uruphong grants himself the narrative omnipresence that is the fiction film’s stock-in-trade. Its opening sequence provides graceful bits of expository dialogue between Prayad Jumma and his future landlord, through which Jumma explains his family’s predicament and brokers the deal that will serve as the story’s central conflict. These sorts of privileged moments appear throughout the film—parents anxiously mulling their child’s future, warm and aimless dinnertime chatter, the men kicking around various schemes to alleviate their intractable financial burdens—the two families’ hopes and fears, all disclosed through naturalistic contrivance.
With these devices, Uruphong delivers the larger meaning that eluded his previous essays at capturing contemporary life in rural Thailand. The fabrications that sustain Agrarian Utopia supply the attenuated causes inaccessible to the documentary gaze. To this end, Uruphong is a reconstructed social realist, giving human dimensions to abstract political and economic forces.
In the urban excursions that bracket the film, Uruphong casts a mordant glance at the politicians who campaign noisily on the city’s streets (the film takes place, obliquely, during Thailand’s 2008 electoral upheaval). But even as useless and corrupt as they have been, the country’s leaders come to seem something like sharecroppers themselves, working a plot that belongs to a neoliberal global order almost as remote from them as they are from Chiang Rai’s rice growers. This fatalistic analysis leaves families like the Jummas and the Mungmeungs even more helpless than before, and the film ends with little practical hope in view: without a rice paddy, and still in debt, these men and women must take their place in an endlessly flexible workforce.
This is devastating, but it is the necessary conclusion to the story Uruphong has set in motion. An improvement to the families’ material circumstances would strike a note as false as that of Bangkok’s ululating pols. But somehow, Agrarian Utopia is not capsized by this wave of despair. At root, Uruphong’s concerns are not political, but ethical, in the classical sense. “Agriculture,” he asserts in his director’s statement, “is among mankind’s most noble professions.” Agrarian Utopia is a monument to a kind of decent, productive living which may no longer be possible. In the film’s documentary passages, Uruphong creates a loving record of this vanishing vocation. His masterful, self-effacing style bears the marks of the profession’s virtues. Patient and precise in equal measure, attentive to every inch of the environment, each cut and each new angle seem as inevitable and as necessary as the seasonal harvest. His characters face unnavigable strictures, but while they are working the land, they do not despond. As the film’s skin bristles with impotent rage, its heart pumps joy—the gratification of meaningful, absorbing work done well, the solace of family, and the pure exhilaration of being alive to the natural world and all its manifold surfaces.
Stories from the North (2006) will play at Museum of the Moving Image on June 5; Agrarian Utopia (2009) at Anthology Film Archives from June 10 – 15.
COLIN BECKETT lives in Brooklyn and is currently the Critical Writing Fellow at UnionDocs.