Joe Cook is a complicated fellow. Born Joeurt Puk in Cambodia, he and his family fled the murderous Khmer Rouge regime to the United States in 1975. They were among the lucky ones: between 1975 and 1979 the Khmer Rouge exterminated two million Cambodian citizens. Among the dead were Joe’s father and two younger sisters. Joe was 12 years old.
Joe ultimately became a respected chef for the Mikata Japanese Steakhouse in Dothan, Alabama (hence his customer-bestowed name: Joe Cook). He married and had two children. He was American and he was happy. Still, something in his life was missing - something to do with his stolen Cambodian heritage.
In May 2002 Joe learned that his sister – long thought a victim of the Khmer Rouge – was alive. He immediately traveled to the village of Baribo, 68 miles west of Phnom Penh, to reunite with her. It was during this reunion that Joe conceived the project that has preoccupied him to this day: he decided that Cambodia – this country bombed by the United States during the Vietnam War and ravaged by the Khmer Rouge– needed an addition to its cultural options. Cambodia needed that most American of institutions: baseball.
RICE FIELD OF DREAMS follows the journey of Cambodia’s First National Baseball Team as they prepare for and participate in the 24th “Sea Games” – an Olympics-like sports competition between South East Asian nations to be held in Bangkok. For the 22 young players Joe assembled and trained over the previous five years it is their first venture outside of their farming villages.
Along the way we experience the texture of daily life in these villages; meet the American coaches who have donated their time; and travel with the team to the culture shock inducing city of Bangkok for the competition.
We hear the player’s stories; watch their preparation for the Games; and learn about America’s interest in Cambodian baseball when Jim Small, Vice President of Major League Baseball, visits.
But most of all, we experience the drama of the team’s five games. No one expects these rookies to best the competition their first time out, but nonetheless emotions run high. How well will they do? Will they even get a hit? How many hits? How many runs? They are representing their country and they want to succeed.
The film crew fully expected that they would be filming a strickly feel-good story: Cambodian refugee escapes the Khmer Rouge; comes to America; then brings hope and baseball back to his homeland.
But what they discover is that life -- and Joe Cook -- have a way of complicating strickly feel-good stories.
This film has it all: drama, humor, an exotic location and an athletic competition. A “West meets East” dynamic and an engaging cast of characters. But most of all RICE FIELD OF DREAMS has heart. As the final shots of the film assert, baseball is a gift to upcoming Cambodian generations and Joe Cook, complicated as he is, should be commended for offering such a gift.