Chiang Kuoyu, MA, Graduate Institute of Taiwan Literature, National Taiwan University
“Let it be, let it be, without rice we can still be happy!” 1 Uttered by Uncle Kunbin – a jovial Tainan rice farmer, the words are full of optimism and acceptance but belie a deep resignation.
Filmed in Tainan’s Houbi District, Let It Be (2004) differs from most social realist documentaries – rather than developing the film along a defined plotline, directors Lan Yanquan and Zhuang Mingzheng employ post-modernist collage techniques, arranging fragments of farm-village life – gleaned from a fifteen-month stay in the Tainan countryside – along a temporal axis based on the sequence of the traditional 24 Solar Terms – “Summer Solstice,” “Lesser Heat,” “Great Heat,” etc. – although the fragments are not necessarily closely interrelated. While the apparently chaotic narrative structure is unsuited to probing deeply into specific issues, it does convey a wealth of information, from the commonplace – work and rest, entertainment, family relations, agricultural technology – to the consequential – how farmers regard the nation, history, and Taiwan’s economic transformation. Thus, the film presents ordinary life in a Taiwanese farming village, its most moving element – in the details viewers can experience Houbi farmers’ “let it be” spirit.
Let It Be showcases Taiwan farmers’ thoughts and feelings at the beginning of the twenty-first century; the film could also be said to carry audiences from the present – the “twilight of the agrarian era” – to the past, summoning up memories of farming villages’ bygone days. Like others of the “last generation of farmers” born in the 1930s and 40s, Uncle Kunbin witnessed the peak and decline of Taiwanese agriculture – from 1950s’ reforms that redistributed land to small farmers to the island’s complete industrial transformation in the 1970s, when salaried laborers replaced farmers as the driving force of Taiwan’s economy. Long known as Taiwan’s “rice-basket,” Houbi’s economic development ceased after it was classified as an “agricultural conservation district,” whereupon farmers’ incomes stagnated. After Taiwan entered the WTO in 2000, Houbi rice-growers were unable to compete with low-priced agricultural imports. Finally, the ROC government ordered the farmers to stop planting – former agricultural workers now live off government subsistence payments, their connection to the land severed.
Viewers may ask: Why talk about “no rice” in the twenty-first century, when rice is abundant (although farmers can’t sell it to wholesalers for a fair price)? The directors noted the plight of Houbi farmers, who since the 1950s White Terror era have had no choice but to accept whatever the government mandates – thus, the film is a historical document, a record of the resilience and impoverishment of agricultural communities abandoned by the changing times. When Houbi farmers are finally forced to quit planting and face the reality of “no rice,” Uncle Kunbin stands in the middle of a burned-off paddy, silent. The blackened stumps represent the last round in the cycle of planting and harvest. Uncle Kunbin’s reduced circumstances – emblematic of the “last generation of rice farmers” – are indeed a declaration that Taiwanese agriculture has been brought to an end, uprooted by a latter-day invasion of neoliberal ideology, a doctrine that advocates limited government interference in the free market.
Ten years after Let It Be premiered, the “end of farming” scenarios the film foresaw have one by one become realities; thus, it seems that the optimistic and accepting ditty “Let It Be” (“No-rice happy”) is in fact a profound and plaintive protest against free-market international agricultural policies.
1A literal translation would read “No-rice happy, no-rice happy, without rice we can still be happy!”
|Related Literary Themes：||Nativist Literature|