From Women's Studies
''Rice People: A Film Review by Betty Cruz (1994, 129 minutes)
In post-Khmer Rouge Cambodia, a family struggles to produce a bountiful rice harvest only to be met with death, torment, and ruin. The film transports the viewer to a land where rice paddies and prayers for a successful harvest consume every thought. Every offering made to the Buddha, every prayer uttered is centered on this desire, which is brought to life early in a scene where Om reassures her husband: “What is empty when upright, full when bent? Rice.” Prior to the film’s pivotal turn of events with the death of the family patriarch, Pouev, he and his wife share a vulnerable exchange reflecting on the inheritance they hope to leave their seven daughters, as well as future generations.
It is not clear if the gendered issues we see in the film are unique to this family because the father is the only male in this household or whether all [Cambodian rice growing] families are as egalitarian in their division of labor. Nevertheless, in one of the opening scenes of the picture, Pouev does not hesitate to let one of his daughters know that, on that day, her fishing skills have surpassed his. His confidence in his girls is reaffirmed when he again praises another daughter by telling his wife “Our daughter Sokha works as hard as a boy.” Furthermore, although Pouev contemplates what legacy, if any, will be left to each of the girls, he also worries over his unborn grandchildren. This emotional concern may be expected from Om or, at the very least, that she would reciprocate such fears. Instead, Om breaks into laughter and teases him for already experiencing such thoughts.
The film is chock-filled with zoomorphic omens that persist long after Pouev has passed, further threatening the harvest, and tormenting Om until she can no longer distinguish between her life and fears of a failed harvest. Although most of the scenes that are rich in spiritual symbolism involve his wife, it is Pouev who performs the first sacred gesture with a food offering to the heavens. As death is upon him, Pouev reminds a distraught Om that “Rice is more important… take care of our paddies.” From that point forward, Om will do everything possible to honor her husband’s dying wish.