Crop Circles


Uruphong Raksasad, Agrarian Utopia, 2009, still from a color film in HDV, 122 minutes.

THE HISTORY of labor-conscious cinema abounds with landmarks in cinematographic beauty, The Grapes of Wrath (1940) and Days of Heaven (1978) among the most notable. This is far from coincidental. Any film dealing with agricultural work will likely capture the relationship between man and landscape, a relationship that is often shot through with cruel irony: How can splendiferous settings be home to poverty and exploitation?

Thai director Uruphong Raksasad’s quasi documentary Agrarian Utopia stretches this irony to the breaking point. For here is an undeniably stunning work of visual art, a premiere example of the equal footing hi-def digital video now holds with celluloid filmmaking. Acting as his own cinematographer, Uruphong finds intimate wonder in lush, verdant hills; in twilights afire with dark orange skies; in children frolicking amid drenched fields, their playful dives splattering mud in almost painterly strokes across the camera lens.

But the primary effect of these images is not simply to inspire rapture. It is to heighten the vulnerability and demonstrate the perseverance of a class of people held in servitude to the environment they must work to ever-slimmer prospects of upward mobility or even daily sustenance. The narrative of Agrarian Utopia concerns the day-to-day survival of rice paddy peasants played by nonprofessional actors living lives much like those they portray on-screen. Two families band together to work an owner’s land—rented by Uruphong himself for the purposes of the shoot—using antiquated agricultural methods: A harnessed yet cantankerous buffalo provides the most advanced technological tool.

The film opens with workers complaining about drowning in unpaid loans, and things only get harder from there. The families must forage for insects and honey during especially hard times; a father tells his family not to spend money on his funeral shrine so that they can save it for the children’s studies; the land owner pays out less than expected at the end of the year’s harvest in order to pay the money he owes on a car.

Toward the beginning and end of Agrarian Utopia, Uruphong uses clips of impassioned and heated populist protests against the Thai government on the streets of Bangkok. But the main characters—especially paterfamilias Duen—only watch these political battles from the sidelines. (“It’s like a movie,” he earlier says about scenes of the “good” opposition pitted against the “bad” officials.) Even religion seems futile, what with a Buddhist temple atop a nearby hill mocking the workers’ grinding labor with promises of immaterial respite.

What’s left to hope for? Agrarian Utopia implies that Duen will be forced to move to the city to seek low-paying work he doesn’t desire—a fate shared by multitudes in a globalized agricultural system almost entirely given over to industrialization. Uruphong also uncovers small moments of domestic strength and happiness: an outdoor wedding ceremony, children honking horns created out of thatched grass. Whether these constitute visions of harmony that can drive Duen’s determination to do better for his family or mere moments of joy snatched from a lifetime of adversity remains the film’s wrenching open question.

Michael Joshua Rowin

Agrarian Utopia runs June 10–16 at Anthology Film Archives in New York.