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Yvon Hem: Sovannahong (Cambodia 1967) Review

October 22, 2009
Blood on the hands of Princess Keth Soriyong

Blood on the hands of Princess Keth Soriyong

Yvon Hem´s Sovannahong, the second film on Tuesday during the retrospective accompanying the exhibition Golden Reawakening at the Chinese House in Phnom Penh, is a solidly told folklore tale. While containing some gross humor and some grotesque violence, it is basically the kind of fairy tale that is common to all cultures.

Adding to the generally fantastic mood of the film was the fact that just before the screening started, out of the blue German director Detlev Buck entered the Chinese House, and made himself comfotable in the first row on the floor in front of the screen.

As all of the previous films that were based on Khmer folklore, Sovannahong delights in lavish decors, in court ceremonial and in ornamental set design that is remindful of the Bollywood cinema of that period: Beautiful servants serve huge bowls of tropical fruit and pour wine into golden goblets, while muscle men in the background fan the court with palm leaves. Director Yvon Hem acknowledged the influence of Indian movies on his own films in a talk after the screening.

Poster of Sovannahong

Poster of Sovannahong

Yvon worked as a set designer on Marcel Camus´ little-known movie L’oiseau de paradis (1962) that was shot with amateur actors in Cambodia as a successor to his internationally highly successful Orfeu Negro (1959). Yvon went on to teach himself film making by reading how-to-books, and made some of the most beloved films of the “Golden Age of Khmer Cinema” during the 1960s and early 1970s, including Sovannahong and Abul Kasem.

The film is about the drawn-out and complicated love story between Princess Keth Soriyong, the daughter of a giant king, and Sovannahong, a human prince. Sovannahong (Kong Sam Oeun) first sees the princess as an apparition in a rose, while taking a bath in a well. The shot of Soriyong singing that is superimposed on a candy-colored rose is just the first of a number of lovely, low-tech special effect vignettes that are part of the charm of the movie.

Sovannahong gets so love-sick that he manages to convince a fortune teller to make him a magical golden swan that takes him to the kingdom of Soriyong, or, more precisely, to her bedroom. The film, as many of the other Khmer classics screened so far, is surprisingly frank in the depiction of sexuality. While there is no nudity or explicitly erotic scenes, a travelling shot from the bed, where the two lovers embrace, to a window showing a lovingly painted landscape in night-blue, leaves little question about what is going on here.

The secret romance between human and spirit cannot last very long. Scheming court ladies kill him with a devilish device, as he is entering the bed room of the princess. Sovannahong manages to sing a last song, while already spitting blood, and then leaves the realm of the giant king on his golden swan, believing – as a love and intrigue are never far from each other in these stories – that it was Soriyong who tried to kill him.

When Princess Soriyong wakes up, she despairs in one of the visually most impressive scenes of the movie, as she stumbles through reeds lit in orange and pink. But just as she is about to end it all, a god appears, gives her a good talking to, and turns her into a male warrior so she can look for her lost love. As in Panhcha and Tevy, the topic of gender change and the relationship between the sexes plays an important role in the story. On her quest, she first encounters two giants in the forest, who try to attack her, but instead are beaten senseless by her in a scene full of wonderous feats, with one of them (the grimacing Mondoline) ending up in drag as her maid. A scene where she “civilizes” the two bumbling forest giants by teaching them to speak proper Khmer could probably be understood as another reflection of the cultural politics of “Khmerization”, but I might read too much into this particular scene.

Despair in the reeds

Despair in the reeds

Princess Soriyong finds an ailing Sovannahong at his court, but does not reveal her identity to him, as she is afraid that he might take revenge at her. Once Sovannahong has been nurtured back to life with the help of the court astrologer, a number of hilarious scenes follow where he tries to figure out if she is a woman or a man. Just before the trials and tribulations are about to take yet another bloody turn, a literal deus ex machine, that old favorite of popular theatre, makes an appearance. The God prevents the giant father of Keth Soriyong from killing Sovannahong. The giant “decides to practices his meditation in the world of Shiva, leaving his throne to his children”, as the summary of the film that was handed out during the film says.

Sovannahong is not as outlandish as Ly Bun Yim’s 12 Sisters, but it a well-told oriental fantasy.  Its meandering, occasionally violent story is a far shot from the domesticated versions that remain of the European fairy tales today. As with the other legends in the Khmer movies reviewed so far, these are children tales that you might not want your children to see.

So far, Sovannahong was the sanest movie of them all, both in terms of narrative and in terms of cinematic technique. But that might be me slowly getting accustomed to this kind of story-telling.

In any case, it is fascinating to compare a scene from the movie with a version in the style of the Khmer royal ballet to see how far cinema had already diverged from these traditions.

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