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Field Daze

In reality, subsistence hell
But the high-definition images look heavenly

Extra Virgin

At long last, the affordable handycam is helping to document unseen corners of Asia — and define a new generation of filmmakers. First there's Beijing's Zhao Liang, who used a decade of handheld shooting to create Petition, which chronicles the Kafkaesque torment of Chinese citizens seeking official redress for endlessly unanswered grievances. Then there's Burma VJ, the Danish director Anders Østergaard's dazzling pastiche — marred at times by dull dramatic reconstructions — of material shot at great risk by underground videographers from Burma's democracy movement.

Now comes the turn of Thailand's Uruphong Raksasad. Applying the principles of reality TV to his homemade production, Uruphong engaged two scuffling farming families to work a plot of land he rented for them in his native Chiang Rai province, and filmed them. The end result — the ironically entitled Agrarian Utopia — is a poignant essay on lives of mounting debt and bug-catching subsistence, evoking eternal cycles of suffering that will seem stunningly fresh to urban audiences in Thailand and the region. See what we learned from a decade at the movies.

If there's anything to criticize in the 33-year-old director's sophomore effort (a follow-on from 2006's equally pastoral Stories from the North), it's that his high-definition images — all darkening clouds and lustrous green paddies — are too beautiful. Despite its share of grumbling about corrupt politicians, Agrarian Utopia quickly moves beyond some heavy-handed message movie toward Buddhist meditation. Uruphong's oppressed peasants are as much victims of their own restlessness as they are of meager rice prices. With a poet's eye, the sights and sounds of their close-to-nature existence are transformed into sources of comfort.

Remarkably, Uruphong's directorial deftness assures that the laborers starring as themselves never look labored or sound the least bit scripted. The filmmaker is currently postponing further projects to obtain his master's in communications, but it is apparent that he has already learned many lessons on the way to Utopia.

See 25 (more) authentic Asian experiences.

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