Occupying a small corner of the recently refurbished Martin Gropius Bau art gallery in central Berlin, also the temporary headquarters for the city’s 64th Berlin film festival, a team of Taiwanese film industry heavy-weights and sales agents were busily engaging a stream of visitors.
The nine-strong group had a mission on their hands: to sell the political docu-drama and festival selected-film The Rice Bomber (白米炸彈客) to the world.
“I just hope that audiences in Berlin can see something different about Taiwan,” explained the film’s director Cho Li (卓立).
The Rice Bomber is certainly different. Based on the life of self-confessed bomb-maker Yang Ju-men (楊儒門) the two-hour film carefully unpicks the events leading up to his politically-motivated 12-month campaign of 2003-2004 during which he planted 17 small bombs, packed with rice, to highlight the hardships faced by struggling Taiwanese farmers.
After Taiwan joined the WTO to much pomp and ceremony in early 2002, Taiwanese farmers were then forced to compete in an increasingly competitive agricultural market. It was from this anxious and uncertain period that Yang emerged and seared his mark on Taiwanese history. While his bombs, the first of which bore the message: “Against rice importing — the government should look after its people,” never killed or injured anyone (in fact only two detonated), he was sentenced to seven-and-a-half years in jail in 2005. He was pardoned in 2007 after spending 16 months in jail.
“The Rice Bomber is the first film about the agricultural industry in Taiwan,” says Cho Li, her tiny frame dwarfed by the palatial and opulent hall of the once war-ravaged Martin Gropius Bau interior.
“I am from Changhua, the same city as the rice bomber, and that’s one of the reasons I wanted to make this film. He planted those bombs in 2003-2004, but he had seen farmer’s hardship for more than 20 years by then,” she says.
For lead actor Jag Huang (黃健瑋), who also attended the festival, playing the man who has become part of modern-day Taiwanese folklore had its own challenges, many of them physical.
“Yang had been in an elite unit of the Taiwanese army and so he was strong,” says Huang, “and that meant I had to get into shape for the role … at one point I cycled all the way around Taiwan.”
Huang says he felt sympathy with Yang, whom he met in person, for the task.
“He didn’t use nails or anything, it wasn’t really violent. I think it was more like an announcement to create awareness.”
The film is, at times, a somewhat overly sentimental portrayal of Yang, with music designed to pluck at our heartstrings, and a cast of victimized characters, which robs the film of some of its political punch.
However, it is a brave attempt to tackle a controversial issue and the film cleverly uses newsreel footage and dialogues between Yang and his alter-ego to provide both context and insight. Taiwan also plays a leading role with High Definition film portraying Taipei, Changhua and coastal areas in a beautiful light.
The film ventures into further controversial territory with the portrayal of ‘trouble-maker,’ the young woman who became Yang’s friend and confidante. Despite rumors that ‘trouble-maker,’ played by Nikki Hsieh (謝欣穎), was the daughter of a wealthy and influential family, she espoused revolutionary theories and ideas that, as is shown in the film, she uses to both goad, inspire and dismiss Yang.