Nature is perhaps too beautiful and too abundant. Within its vastness, man is inevitably reduced to a position of weakness and insignificance. This theme is richly illustrated in Thai filmmaker Uruphong Raksasad’s haunting 2009 fiction/documentary hybrid, Agrarian Utopia. As it follows the day-to-day lives of two families of sharecroppers in rural Thailand, Uruphong’s camera captures a world of rich digital greens and Ruisdael cloudscapes, and the comparison is apt, because its rivals any Dutch landscape for detail and intensity.
Now, when I think green, there are two movies that come to mind first and foremost: Shunji Iwai’s All About Lily Chou-chou (2001)—which is all rain-soaked rice paddies in varying shades of green—and Lars von Trier’s Antichrist (also 2009), in which Charlotte Gainsbourg speaks the line that sums up my pessimistic view of nature (and if you know me, you’re probably sick of hearing it). She says, “Nature is Satan’s church.” But in Agrarian Utopia, nature isn’t just a church, it’s a whole world, and a world on the verge of apocalypse, with our protagonists, the Jumma and Mungmeung families, clinging onto its edge like insects. One gets a distinct impression of how deep the earth is, and how human beings can only scratch its surface.
In its leisurely pacing (there is not much in the way of plot) and its rural setting, Uruphong’s film calls to mind the work of his countryman, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, with whom he shares an interest in humanity’s place in nature. Agrarian Utopia also reminds one of the annoying films of Terrence Malick, minus the pseudo-philosophical bullshit and the art-house clichés that make films like To the Wonder so insufferable (Uruphong may have depicted tall grass blowing in the wind, but he managed to resist the temptation to have an attractive woman twirling through it for half the film). In fact, this is the kind of movie that I think Malick wants to make (or thinks he’s making): a genuinely profound meditation on man and nature and capricious fate.
And now a word on availability: like the film I profiled in my last post (Pere Portabella’s Umbracle), Agrarian Utopia is streaming on MUBI, and that appears to be the only venue in which to see this film in the United States. Personally, I’d been wanting to see this movie for a long time; MUBI briefly put it up a few years ago, but I neglected to watch it then, and then it disappeared! and I had regretted my negligence ever since. So, I don’t want to sound like a shill, but if you’re a Thai cinema enthusiast in the U.S., this may conceivably be your only opportunity to see this film, ever, or at least within the foreseeable future. I wish it wasn’t like that, and that international art films like this were much more widely available here, but that’s unfortunately the case at present. Kudos to MUBI for doing its part to rectify the situation.