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Uong Kan Thuok: Pel Del Trov Zum (A time to cry, Cambodia 1972) Review

October 19, 2009

The film screened on Monday at the  retrospective of old Khmer movies from the 1960s and 1970s at the current Golden Reawakening exhibition in Phnom Penh, was quite a different affair from what was previously to see here. Whereas “Panhcha and Tevy” und “12 Sisters” took place in some mythical past, “Pel Del Trov Zum” (A time to cry, Cambodia 1972) is set in a contemporary environment. It is a story about an arranged marriage that destroys the love between Vichara (Vichara Dany) and Vichet (Kong Seum Eu), two of the biggest star of the time. Vichara has to marry the rich bachelor Chhit, so her parents can pay of their debts. The deeply disappointed Vichet takes Monida for a wife but she dies during child birth.

Interestingly, the story is set in the film world, and you get to see what the production of a Cambodian film anné 1970 might have looked like: one director, one cinematographer with a 16-mm-camera, one guy to hold the umbrella behind the camera, some stars to act in front of it. That´s all.

Whereas the previous films dwelled on Khmer folklore and ambiance, this film takes place among the Western-oriented high society of Phnom Penh. When the film was shot, the Americans and the Vietnamese were already bombing Vietcong positions in Cambodia, which was the beginning of the end for the country, and somehow the whole film has a kind of “dance on the volcano” atmosphere. That is not to say that there are not some moments of cheerful happiness, for example in the beginning as a group of actors in hippie clothes practice a joyful dance in a tropical garden – a brief piece of Cambodian flower power, and I think I even saw the director wave a joint!

However, as the melodrama builds up and the crying fits and shouting matches become more frequent, the film takes on an increasingly claustrophobic atmosphere. As the film progresses, most of the scenes are shot indoors in environments that seem stuffy and stiff –  musty parlors, anonymous offices, faceless lounges with shelves full of nondescript knick-knack. The harried, leaden atmosphere is furthered by the fact that director Uong Kan Thuok, one of the very few female directors of that time, almost never uses establishing shots (a common feature of all old Khmer films viewed so far), but rather dwells in close-ups of her actors. This and the frequent disorienting zooms on the protagonists occasionally reminds one of John Cassavettes, but most of the time it just does not add up and looks primarily unfocussed.

In her attempt to fashion a metropolitan upper class milieu, Uong sheds everything that looks in the slightest Cambodian. The men wear ties and drink Whiskey from their house bar in their dull luxury homes, the women are dressed in jumpers with flower patterns, and everybody rides around with French cars. While it would probably not be correct to say that this movie could take place everywhere, there is some strange, non-distinct quality to the sets and locations – even the scenes that were shot outdoors look oddly generic. The film seems to subscribe to the fiction (also advocated in some of the 1960s movies by King Norodom Sihanouk) that a modernizing Cambodia was progressing to an extent that it was on its way to catch up with the developed world and both its standard of living and as its lifestyle.

I can´t say I particularly liked this film, but that might have to do with the fact that I did not get much of the endless dialogues. One has to concede that the film has a filmic aesthetic on its own, however it failed to convince me that these aesthetic choices were necessarily conscious ones.

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