A new beginning for Cambodian film
The digital film revolution has finally reached Cambodia. Two recent digital production try to break free from the formulaic horror films that dominate the local film production right now: Vanished, released in early September, and Twin Diamonds that premiered in Phnom Penh last week.
Cheap digital video cameras and the possibility to edit film on off-the-shelf PCs has already given voice to a new generation of film makers in other Southeast Asian countries like the Philippines and Malaysia. They operate outside the confines of their respective film industries, and make independent films that they would have never been able to make only a decade ago before digital video. Some of this new batch of film makers have gone on to win international acclaim and awards, most prominently Dante Mendoza of the Philippines, who garnered the award for best director at the last Cannes Film Festival against the competition of established brand-name directors like Ang Lee, Quentin Tarantino and Lars Van Trier with his gory digital production Kinatay.
While the recent independent productions from Cambodia so far are not film festival material, digital video brings new artistic freedom to a country, that has no film industry to speak of and where film production in the last couple of years has been mostly limited to low budget ghost movies with laughable special effects and crude voice-overs, produced by business men looking for a quick buck. These films were also predominantly shot on digital, but were mostly genre fare with no artistic pretentions. There are only two cinemas left in Phnom Penh that show mostly Thai and occassionally Japanese and Korean horror movies, while the audiovisual diet of the majorityof the Khmers seems to consist out of pirated DVDs, Pro Wrestling, local soap operas and dubbed tv movies from Singapore and Thailand.
Now, two local digital films have been released that try to provide an alternative to this formula. Vanished, the first of the two, is a thriller produced by a local company founded by British expats who came to Cambodia to work on a television series that was supported by the BBC and was meant to warn the population of the dangers of AIDS. A review of that production from the Phnom Penh Post is here.
And then there is Twin Diamonds, a student production that came out of a workshop conducted by French-Cambodian director and curator Davy Chou, himself a grandson of Van Chann, one of the most successful film producers in post-independence Cambodia. A trailer is here. It is a 45-minute film made by 60 students from six schools in Phnom Penh: Mith Samlanh, the Department of Media and Communication of the Royal University of Phnom Penh, Lycée Français René Descartes, Reyum Art School, the Royal University of Fine Arts and Limkokwing University. The production was supported by a number of NGOs, including the Friends initiative.
While Vanished at times gives the impression of a Khmer head that has somehow been transplanted on a Western body, Twin Diamonds seems much more closer to the traditional lore of the region. Like Vanished it is a thriller, and therefore is involved with the conventions of a genre that does not seem to have a particular tradition in the Khmer cinema that enjoyed a brief golden period before the Khmer Rouge put an end to all cultural activities in the country, and most of the local talent either left Cambodia or were killed by the regime that devastated the country so effectively.
The trailer – with its dramatic point of view shots into the barrel of a revolver, its gun play and its soundtrack of Surf music and American hip hop – makes it look like the intention was to create the local version of a US gang movie. The film itself with its restrained melodrama however is very much in line with the traditional story telling that apparently informed most of the films from the Golden Age of Khmer film making.
It is difficult to pin auteurist intentions onto a film that was clearly a group project. But maybe it is just the collective nature of this enterprise that allowed a mode of story telling to emerge that is decidedly different from the traditions of Western narrative film making. The plot about two twin sisters who were separated at birth is the stuff of countless Asian melodramas from Hong Kong to Malaysia. And the story-telling with its unlikely plot twists and improbable chance meetings runs counter to the expectations of any film viewer steeped in Western narrative conventions. One protagonist just happens to ride his bicycle past a house, where his friend is being killed; later the two sisters mysteriously find each other before bumping into their mother – who gave them away twenty years ago – on a street corner; and then out of the blue daddy is also back in the picture for an overdue family reunion. A very neat and funny local twist is a chase that has to be interrupted because our protagonist looses one of his slippers.
Twin Diamonds is clearly an amateur production, and the film makers acknowledge that fact in the very beginning of the film. The different scenes were shot by different teams from different schools, which are neatly prefaced with credits for every sequence, giving the film a structure akin to a surrealist exquisite corpse experiment. Therefore different sequences have a decidedly different look and feel. At one point the film looses all narrative thrust in a bewildering sequence, where a chase scene is deconstructed in a way that looks like the film makers are trying to do a self-reflective homage to the first chase in Thai action hero Tony Jaa´s break-through movie Ong Bak.
While Twin Diamonds will not single-handedly revive the local film scene, it shows that there is a desire to tell stories that somehow speak to the experience of young people in the country. And judging from the spectator reaction at the premiere, there is also an audience for these stories that is ready to put up with the technical short-comings of a film if it caters to their expectations.
A tagged-on bar scene that has a group of youths dancing the twist to a song by Ros Sereysothea in Twin Diamonds shows that the makers of this film are aware of the Golden Age of Khmer Pop Culture, that has received international recognition via the “Cambodia Rocks” samplers that brought together some of the most outrageous garage rock from Cambodia from the 1960s. The nostalgia for that time, when Cambodia was a relatively wealthy and advancing country in Southeast Asia, seems to be high here right now, as the latest issue of the fashion magazine F on the Sixties in Cambodia and an upcoming exhibition on the Khmer films of this time shows. There is hoping that the new batch of digital films might be the beginning of a resurgence of Cambodian cinema, comparable to the brief period of popular film making in the 1960s, before the Khmer Rouge put the country back to the stone age.
On a personal level, it makes me proud that some of my students from the Department of Media and Communication at the Royal University of Phnom Penh are part of that endeavor.