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Golden Reawakening – Final Remarks

October 26, 2009


I went to the Chinese House in Phnom Penh on every of the last nine days, except for one. The organizers and the regulars at Golden Reawakening, the exhibition cum retrospective on the “Golden Age” of Cambodian Cinema, started to feel like members of my extended family. Once the movies started, there were then frequently the same familiar faces on the screen: Dy Saveth, Kong Som Eurn, Tet Vichara Darny, Trente Deux, Mang Talin, Loto.

It seems like film making in the Sixties was more or less a family affair, with the same actors used over and over again, with superstars like Dy Saveth reportedly making more than 100 films in the less than two decades that the “Golden Age” of Khmer cinema lasted. Veteran director Yvon Hem during one of the public talks explained that he repeatedly tried to introduce new actors, but that the public did not accept the newcomers…

I had my regular seat on one of the giant plastic cushions and often ended up in a montage of limbs and body parts of the other people slouching around me. And I have been burning the midnight oil in the last ten days in order to document the event. While I occasionally had a private translator and always a synopsis of the films, I am sure that I misunderstood a lot, from names to religious references to production years, so everything I wrote on these movies needs to be taken with a grain of sand.

I am very grateful that I got this crash course in Khmer cinema so shortly after I arrived here in Phnom Penh. I learned a lot both about the local cinema in particular and Khmer culture in general. The films were well-chosen, and presented a good overview: from the savage film-making of a Ly Bun Yim to the relatively traditional and accomplished visual style of a Tea Li Koun, from the contemporary melodramas like Hear my wish to the exuberant folklore fantasies set in some mystical never-ever land like Preah ThinavongSavannahong or Rattanavong to the royal home movies by King Norodom Sihanouk.

The organizers did not only pull off a meticulously organized event – with the Khmer Rock´n´Roll party a particular highlight – , but also made a special effort to locate the surviving directors and actors of that period that made some truly impressive appearances. In particular, the feisty Dy Saveth did not only speak a number of times, but also choreographed the fashion show and was unstoppable on the dance floor during the final party. Davy Chou and the organizing comitee from the Kon Khmer Koun Khmer (Khmer Film Khmer Generation) group can be proud of the event they pulled off and the social dynamics they set off.

What the exhibition made abundantly clear is, that there is still much to research and discover about this brief, but highly fascinating period in world cinema. Rarely can you observe how out of nothing a film culture emerges in such a petri dish situation as in the Cambodia of the 1960s. Film makers little formal training, who had no idea what continuity editing or the 180 degree rule was, created a cinema that is still baffeling and touching today. Some of them – like Ly Bun Lim – developed a completely unique visual style, that is so different from what we expect movies to be, that it is still stunning and unsetteling. Other learend, movie by movie, to create films that adher to the standards of international film making.

To my knowledge, there are only two academic essays and a handful of fan websites on the Cambodian cinema of the time between Independence and Khmer Rouge. The surviving film makers are all in the 60s or older, and will not be available for interviews forever. The surviving films are in terrible condition, and often degraded VCD copies from the black market, made with analog video cameras from faded, red-tinted prints.

Interesting topics for future investigation are the mythological and intercultural roots of these films that are often not even available to younger Khmer anymore, the reception of these films by the audience and the narrative and digetic structures of these films. The soundtrack will prove to be of particular interest, as the wild mishmash of music from different sources, that is remindful of the mixing technique of hip hop DJs, might come out of the practice of Khmer Lakhon theatre to accompany, leitmotif-style, certain characters with their own piece of music.

Audience taking in a film

Audience taking in a film

While it might be an impossible endeavor to come up with common characteristics of all of these films, a certain trait towards the ornamental in the set design in noticeable, a trait that fits into a general predisposition of Khmer culture. All the Khmer film makers of that time seem to have a special relationship with nature. Even the crudest, least sophisticated films always have some unique shots of clouds, waves, the sun, the moon etc that serve no narrative purpose, but seem to be there simply to further the atmosphere of the movie. The depiction of sexuality is surprisingly frank, considering the time. While there are no actual sex scenes and little nudity, the films do not leave the viewer in the dark about what is happening between the characters.

So, there is hoping that it does not end here, but that Golden Reawakening was only the beginning of a new appraisal of and the research into this long forgotten episode of world cinema. As one of the film veterans who spoke at the event, movie composer Oum Dara, said: “Ask me something else. Soon I will be dead.”

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