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Ly Va: Preah Thinavong (Cambodia 1967) Review

October 24, 2009
preah thinavong

Neang Peou plays the magic flute

Ly Va´s Preah Thinavong (1966) is another fantastic oriental tale with a unsettling sadist streak. Like the Justine of de Sade´s novel of the same name, our naïve heroine has to undergo countless humiliations, tribulations and torments, that are inflicted on her despite her attempts to be faithful and decent.

Neang Peou (Phka Rozet) is the most beautiful of the daughters of King Vibol Reach. When he invites eligible bachelors for his daughters, she hears a flute playing and finds a leper in the woods. She hands him her silk towel to cover his wounds, which is unfortunately the sign that she wants to marry her. The leper takes her up on that, and while her other sisters end up with respectable husbands (one even gets a Frenchman in full colonial regalia), she has to live with the cripple under a tree and suffer his abuses.

The leper, of course, is really the beautiful warrior Preah Thinavong in disguise, and after he has tested the loyalty of his wife, he reveals his true identity. However, she is not allowed to live in peace with her husband. Her sisters are jealous, and advice her to pour boiling water over him and stab him, while he is asleep – supposedly that will make him love her more. Instead, he leaves her and returns to his palace. She is forced to dress up as his deaf-mute servant, run after him, when he rides his horse, and to watch as he takes another wife. In one particularly nasty scene she even has to fan the couple while they make love.

The second bride, Kay Yuvan, and her mother are suspicious about her, and continue to tantalize her, eventually beating her until she is almost dead. The husband – under the influence of a “magic love cream” that the mother-daughter-team has put on him – does not come to his senses until it is almost too late. He saves her life, while a giant who wants to eat her “sweet flesh” already preys on them. Then the deus ex machina appears and tells them to live happily ever after, which they do.

Director and cinematographer Ly Va was one of the five Ly brothers, who all produced movies during the 1960s and early 70s in Cambodia. Judging from the films screened at the retrospective of classic Cambodian films so far at the Golden Reawaking exhibitions in the Chinese House in Phnom Penh, the Ly Brothers were the most gifted film makers of the “Golden Age of Cambodian Cinema”. With minimal means, they managed to create a surreal, fantastic Theatre of the Macabre, and translated the outpourings of an effervescent fantasy into effective movies full of miraculous signs and wonders.

Two scenes in particular stand out: One is a sequence where human chess figure battle it out in front of the scenic backdrop of Angkor Wat. The other one is a scene when Neang Peou watches her sisters mistreat her respective husbands in their palace. Ly Van manages to create gloomy, sultry sets out of next to nothing. From what one is able to tell from the faded print, the decadent palace (that is somewhat remindful of the depraved settings of Roger Corman´s Edgar Allen Poe movies) consists mostly out of plywood columns,curtains and veils, behind which the sisters torment their husbands.

Ly Va´s brother, Ly Bun Yim, the only one who lived through the Khmer Rouge reign of terror and whose movie 12 Sisters is the surviving master piece of the Cambodian cinema of that period, was present to take questions after the movie. His animated description of his lost movie The Seahorse was the highlight of the retrospective so far. When he retold the story of the movie, the single shots of his lost film stood clearly in front of the eyes of a captivated audience.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. October 25, 2009 4:25 pm

    But how you say the “deus ex machina” shows up in the end kinda irks me, because we know Preah In in the scene where they are playing chess. Thinavong puts him into a jar and then releases him only after he realizes who he is (Indra, the god of heaven). This isn’t just a random plot, after all they could have left it out and have Neang Pov reawake from unconciousness rather than have Preah In revive her. It does echo the main plot of the story somewhat.

    • tilmanbaumgaertel permalink*
      October 25, 2009 4:55 pm

      I guess that makes him a “deus ex vitro” then… ;)

      Interesting comment, that furthers my understanding of the film. Thanks.

      For some of the films I had somebody translating me, with others I had to rely on a written synopsis, which did not always mention every detail. Also, this whole religious background is quite alien to me, so I might have gotten other things wrong too.

      Then again, this is a blog, not a final analysis, so do take everything here as a work in progress…

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