Opening the 26th Singapore International Film Festival was Panay, a film about the indigenous people living in the rural east coast of Taiwan. Panay is the name of the main character in the film and also refers to “paddy field” – both of which “grow” as the film progresses.
Panay lives as a journalist in Taipei while her father and two children reside in the village. When her father falls ill, she returns to the village to find out that urban development and tourism are threatening to take over their ancestral land. The irrigation canals have dried up and rice farming is no longer viable. There are no young men able to repair the canal and it seems that land sales is the only way ahead. After seeing her father become weaker at the Sisyphean task of clearing the canal, Panay quits her job and takes it upon herself to revitalise the farming community.
While the struggle between urbanisation and the need to preserve tradition is explicit in the film, the answers offered/implied are not all that straightforward. For instance, the dividing line between tradition and modernity is not always clear. The villagers, especially the younger ones, depend on technology such as smart phones and the income generated from tourism. The villagers need external subsidies and expertise to repair the canals. The harvest is not sold in traditional markets – instead it is sold online. If we look beneath the surface, modernity may sometimes be the crucial element to sustain tradition.
During a confrontation between the villagers and authorities, a young police officer tries to move a granny off the road so that the excavator can clear the fields. The granny cries and looks at the young officer, who is also a native of the land, and asks him in the indigenous tongue what tribe he is from. In a heart-wrenching turn, it is the granny who holds on to the dumbstruck officer urging him to remember his roots. What seemed to be a clear demarcation of battle lines dissolves when we remember that we are fundamentally human with complex emotions and identities.
It is not always a case of us versus them. Sometimes, people choose to embrace urban development or city life for practical reasons but it does not mean that it is always an easy decision, or that it is irreversible. Panay’s childhood friend returns to the village as a land agent acting on behalf of the hotel developer, but he is never portrayed as the villain. He helps to rebuild the irrigation system and even wants to join the confrontation against the authorities. Panay also returns from her city job and interestingly, by the end of the film, her daughter takes over her place, preparing to move to the city for her studies. Just like modernity, being a city dweller or moving to the city should not always be seen as bad.
Perhaps it is about seeing the issue in shades of grey, and not just as black-and-white. Technology, tourism and development can help to maintain and even promote traditional life, but there is a dedicate balance which is often toppled, in turn causing us to pass value judgements on what is good or bad. This balance is analogised in the grandfather’s religious beliefs. When he is in the field, he prays to his ancestors for harvest, but before he eats the rice of that harvest, he utters a prayer in the name of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Before starting the canal repair, he joins other villagers in offering prayers and wine to their ancestors, but when he is sick, he prays for healing in church.
Admittedly, this is an awkward equilibrium of two seemingly opposed systems. But perhaps this is the best that we can do, and the best that there is.
After the credits, there was a short segment of tribal celebrations with singing and dancing. However, none of the characters reappear, creating a sense that this has become a documentary instead of a fictional tale. Also, nothing is said of the grandfather’s illness, seeming to suggest that the “story” has not ended and is still being written in real time, right now in the east coast of Taiwan, and perhaps many parts of the world.