Biv Chhay Leang: Rattanavong (Cambodia 1970) Review
The longer the retrospective of Khmer film classics from the 1960s and 1970s go on at Golden Reawakening, the excellent exhibition on the “Golden Age of Khmer cinema” at the Chinese House here in Phnom Penh, the more regular people seem to show up there.
Not the students that still make up the bulk of the audience, but people like the old lady in traditional Khmer dress, who told us with a meek smile that she had first watched all these films, when she was young. We gestured to her repeatedly to make herself comfortable on one of the huge cushions on the floor of the Chinese house. But she just wanted to loll on the rattan mats, among all these other bodies that lie about in the mosaic of arms, legs, torsos and heads that cover the old wooden floor of lobby of the Chinese house taking in the movies.
She was lying on her side, like she was about to fall asleep, with her eyes transfixed on the faded-out Technicolor images on the screen, and only her small, frail head rested on a tiny, little piece of our huge cushion. She had brought her family, and giggled and whispered with them, when things got exciting in the movie.
To my left a teen stared at the screen with his mouth wide open. Behind me a small boy had fallen asleep and lay there snuggled against another boy. It was then that I really started to get a sense of how these old films, now faded and damaged, must have worked on their audience in the 1960s, when some of the over 30 cinemas in Phnom Penh started to show local films with homegrown stories rather than the French, Chinese, Hollywood and Bollywood films that previously fought for space in the theatres.
The first feature on Tuesday was Rattanavong, a feverish dream full of witchcraft, giants, sages, ogres, speaking monkeys, a flying turtle that’s really a female warrior and a princess that has been turned into a spider by her own father. I cannot summarize the meandering story here, so let me just say, that it starts with Princess Sokun Rath (Saom Vann Sodany) abducted by a giant king. As he tries to undress her, there is always yet another dress that appears mysteriously under each one he tears off, while she is praying anxiously. He gives up after he has ripped off 100 dresses. The story ends – after an extended battle between two giants, the monkeys, the turtle and Prince Sisovan – with the prince living happily ever after with not one, but two princesses.
The story stems from Khmer folklore, but seems to come out of Indian mythology. Unlike with Penhcha and Tevy, I was not able to find out more about the sources of this narrative. Director Biv Chhay Leang, who is still alive and resides in France, was a novelist, and his films are typically based on his books. It shows. While his stories are as deeply rooted in pre-modern folk tales, his film lacks the raw unschooled cinematic punch of a film like Ly Bun Lim´s 12 Sisters”. His film seems very much in the tradition of Lakhon, the traditional theatre of Cambodia, and it is amazing how much currency these stories apparently still had in the 1960s. At the same time, with a lot of slapstick action and full of cinematic wonders and miracles, achieved with the simplest of means, Rattanavong harks back to even earlier forms of public entertainment, bringing cinema back to its most plebeian roots. This is pre-Griffith cinema with special effects a la Méliès.