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Chhea Nuk: Panhchapor Tevy (Panhchapor and Tevy, Cambodia 1971) Review

October 19, 2009
Dream sequence in "Panhcha and Tevy"

Dream sequence in "Panhcha and Tevy"

Oh, the joys of discovering films that are not listed in the Internet Movie Data Bank!

With no Wikipedia entry, no book chapter, no fan website, and only a brief clip on YouTube with no additional information, one is left to one’s own devices in understanding and appreciating a film – in the case of the movie in question, an example of the Khmer films that were produced in the brief peaceful and progressive period in Cambodia that started with independence in 1953 and ended with the Khmer Rouge terror regime in 1975. “Panhchapor Tevy” (Panhchapor and Tevy) by Chhea Nuk from 1971 opened the series of screenings that accompanies Golden Reawakening, the fabulous exhibition at the Chinese House in Phnom Penh, that commemorates the Golden Age of Cambodian Cinema in the 1960s and early 1970s, on Sunday night. And what an opening it was.

Before the screening of a mint version of Ty Bun Yim´s awe-aspiring 12 Sisters completely blew away an admiring audience, Panhchapor and Tevy gave a first taste of the character of the films that are considered to make up brief period of intense movie production in Cambodia. Only 33 of the more than 350 films that were produced during that time survive, and most of them are available only in pitiful versions on pirated VDCs, or not at all. The bulk of the film production of this period was destroyed during the tyranny of the Khmer Rouge with their mad contempt for everything artistic or modern.

Panhchapor and Tevy is about the young intelligent Tevy who needs to dress up as a boy in order to be able to attend college, a privilege typically reserved for boys, since “a woman who can write will start to write love letters”, as a Khmer adage goes. The cross-dressing scholar becomes friends with her fellow student Panhchapor, who is too naïve to discover her real gender and treats her as a buddy. But another student, Mondoless, who – due to his voyeurism – discovers her secret, has a crush on her and fantasizes about Tevy in a dream sequence that has to be seen to be believed.

Mondoless asks for her hand in marriage, and her parents accept and order Tevy to terminate her studies and come back home. She leaves Panhchapor with a letter that he reveals her true identity, but he comes to late to her family´s house to prevent the marriage preparation. Tevy collapses during the wedding, while Panhchapor dies of a broken heart in a scene that involves both heavy blood-spitting and the performance of a final song. Tevy travels to his grave, and after yet another dramatic song his last home opens and she gets sucked into the netherworld. There both Panhchapor and Mondoless compete in a hilarious scene for her hand in front of a jury of devils, who come up with a Solomonic solution to the conflict. In the end, Panhchapor and Tevy are reunited in the Here and Now.

Panhcha and Tevy is interesting for a number of reasons. First of all, it brings together some of the most admired actors from 60s-Cambodian cinema, such as the stars of the movie, Kong Som Eurn and Vichara Darny, – the “king” and “queen” respectively of the Cambodian cinema of that time –  and popular comedians such as Mondoline, Trente-Deux, and Loto, a Liliputian and supposedly the “shortest Cambodian ever”.

Secondly, it juxtaposes the conventions of the quintessential modernist medium of cinema with distinctly pre-modern traditions of story-telling, a trait that appears to be characteristic not just of this film, but of many of the Khmer films of that time. The movie is virtually indifferent towards the narrative conventions that by the 1960s informed not only Hollywood movies, but also much of European as well as some of Asian cinema.

There are no establishing shots and the continuity style of editing has no visible bearings whatsoever on the narrative style. At the same time, the film shows that – contrary to claims by scholars of Khmer cinema – the majority of cinema-goers in Cambodia at that time must have understood sophisticated narrative devices such as the flashback, as the movie frequently cuts back to scenes from the love affair between the two protagonists.

It often appears arrogant, when critics remark on the poor dubbing of old Asian movies, a phenomenon also known from Thai, Indonesian and Filipino films of the period. Nevertheless, the flat-sounding voices, occassionally treated with a very short echo effect and often out of sync with the lip movements of the actors, are alienating. It adds to the impression that naturalims was not the most important concern of the directors. The music is a wild pastiche of whatever fits the scene, from the Pink Panther theme to bar jazz to Varese-style 50s-noise-electronics to Khmer music that is faded into each other at will and with zero consideration for coherence and homogeniety.

Thirdly, Panhchapor and Tevy is a significant document of the cultural politics of the “Khmerization” of the Cambodia of the 1960s, as Tevy´s would-be-husband Mondoless is a member of the Cham group, a minority, that today is often referred to as a “hilltribe”, but whose members are actually remnants of the once mighty, pre-Angkor Kingdom of Champa. During the time, when the film was made, there were various uprisings to free the Cham people and create their own state. At the same time, the Cambodian government tried to “khmerize” the Cham, before the Khmer Rouge killed more than half a million of them as they considered them “foreign” and “alien” to Khmer culture. The way the film depicts the two Chams in the film seems very relevant to the self-image that Cambodia was in the process of developing in the post-Independence period. During a good part of its running time, the film is much more interested in the back-and-forth between Mondoline and Tevy than in the actual love story, that seems a bit dull in comparison.

Fourthly, the film deals with the conflict between traditions and modernity that was one of the central issues during the time, when the newly independent Cambodia was looking for its genuine contemporary culture. The conflict between arranged marriages and true love was a highly popular way to deal with this conflict not just in films from Cambodia during that time. It was a reoccuring motif all over Asia, as it allowed to address the problems with the rapid modernization and the loss of traditions in the post-war and post-independence countries in the region in the context of familiar melodramatic story structures.

And finally, Panhchapor and Tevy is an fascinating example of cultural hybridization. The movie tells a strongly localized version of a well-liked Chinese legend: the tale of the Butterfly Lovers, that is as popular as the story of Romeo and Juliet is in the West, and as melodramatic as that classic tale, too. The Butterfly Lovers are such an important tale in Chinese culture that it is currently considered to receive the status of a “Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity” by UNESCO.

Originally a tale from the Tang Dynasty, the story of the ill-fated lovers Liang Shang-Bo and Zhu Ying Tai was adapted as a traditional Chinese opera in several local varieties, including a Huangmei opera version. There are a number of film versions that are based on that adaptation of the story. Other treatments of the same subject include the Tsui-Hark-movie The Lovers (1994) and a Chinese Wuxia-version from 2008. The story – that is often referred to simply as Liang Zhu – was also remade as a television series in 2003 by China Television. This version is considered to be the most successful Chinese television drama of all times.

Panhchapor and Tevy seems strongly indebted to A Love Eterne, the version of the Chinese legend,that Li Han Hsiang, the “Vincent Minnelli of Hong Kong”, filmed in 1963 for Shaw Brothers, starring then-HK-superstars Betty Loh Ti and Ivy Ling Po – plus Jackie Chan as a child extra. The film was among the most successful of the opera films of the Shaw Brothers, and was a big hit not just in Hong Kong and Taiwan (where it reportedly played for half a year non-stop), but also all over Southeast Asia. It is very likely that this version was also shown in Cambodia and served as an inspiration for Panhcha and Tevy.

Some scenes, like the opening sequence, where Tevy reveals her plan to go to college to her maid on a large terrace, seem obviously influenced by the Shaw Brothers version. Another scene, where Tevy and Panhchan observe two geese on a lake is also clearly influenced by a similar scene in The Love Eterne, except that in Li Han Hsiang´s film, the lovers watch Mandarin ducks.

Other parts of the story vary in significant ways from the Chinese tale, and future comparative film studies will have a field day discussing the similarities and differences between the different version. The most significant divergence is obviously the fact that the lovers die in Love Eterne and live happily ever after in Panhchapor and Tevy. While the Chinese version is a tale of gender relationships and the role of women, the Khmer version stresses the romantic love story. While The Love Eterne is probably the most refined and elegant Shaw Brothers opera film, Panhchapor and Tevy is much more earthy, sometimes rough, and occasionally almost racy.

At the same time, there are fascinating examples of cross-cultural pollination, as the scene in the end, where Tevy breaks down at the wooden grave stone of her lover. A grave stone with an engraved name is unknown in Khmer culture, as traditionally stupas without a name plate adorn the grave. This piece of mise-en-scene turns out to be lifted straight from the Shaw Brothers film as this trailer of the latter clearly shows. What the contemporary Cambodian audience must have thought so see such a gravesite that was clearly not their own in a movie that was supposed to be Khmer?

Nevertheless, Panhchapor and Tevy apparently translated the Chinese legend (and its best-known film version) successfully into the context of the Cambodian culture of the early 1970s, as the status of the movie among the films of the “Golden Age of Khmer cinema” shows. Even in the terribly degraded version that survives today with its scratches and the faded colours, the charm and the vitality of the movie shines through.

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