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Films on and by His Royal Majesty, King Norodom Sihanouk, on the Occasion of his 87th Birthday

November 1, 2009
Former King Sihanouk and wife Monique in the Royal Garden
Former King Sihanouk and wife Monique in the Royal Garden

Former King Sihanouk and wife Monique in the Royal Garden

The 87th birthday of Kingfather Norodom Sihanouk this Sunday, provided a good opportunity to see some films in Phnom Penh on, as well as by, the monarch, who is one of the most productive film makers of South East Asia, as well as a prolific composer and writer.

Bophana Media Center screened the documentary Norodom Sihanouk, King and Film Maker (1997) by Frédéric Mitterand, a member of the French “Les Peoples” class, who today is the Minister of Culture of France and recently abused his position by writing an outrageous letter in defense of Roman Polanski. The film belongs to the weird French subgenre of documentaries that first and foremost – with their stilted prose commentary – show that their makers are true hommes de lettres. It would seem that this hagiographic work should have pleased the bona-fide-Francophile king. Despite its stuffy style, the film has some great archival footage on (including mind-blowing shots of a Colonial exhibition in Paris in 1911 and a sequence of pilgrims to the Angkor Temples) and gives a good overview of the films of the former king  A trailer is here.

Meta House presented the two-part documentary The Prince and the Prophecy by James Gerrand that has little on the film making of the king, but a lot of priceless material on his role in the tragic history of post-war Cambodia, including extensive interviews with the charming monarch with the pained lineament around his mouth.

And then, there was the movie Darkness over Angkor (1967), a spy story by the king himself that is based on an actual attempted coup, supposedly plotted by the US and the Vietnamese.  The king has written extensively about this in his book My War with the CIA that he published after he was forced from power by General Lon Nol, one of the most dubious and weird figures in Cambodian history. Conveniently, much of the plotting apparently went on in the ruins of Angkor Wat, which gives the king/director the opportunity to show much of the ancient splendor of Cambodia, an on-going theme in all of his films.

The film shows the king (who squeezes his paunchy body in a different operetta-style uniform in every scene) at its most vain. The diplomatic corps bad-mouths him as “the red prince” because of his alleged sympathies for communism, but it is all a misunderstanding. He is really a refined gentleman, a Cambodian patriot (who can give lectures on any detail of Angkor ornaments and has to leave a dinner in an Angkor temple, when the band starts to play pop music, because he considers it a “sacrilege”), and a lover, as a ridiculous, melodramatic subplot involving the ambassadress of an unnamed country (played by his wife Monique!) shows.

The king wrote about his film: “The few imaginary characters in the film were of use to avoid unnecessary diplomatic “complications” with some foreign powers which¸ in the (years) sixties¸ had still Embassies or diplomats in the Royal Capital¸ Phnom Penh. On the other hand¸ those imaginary characters (“personnages fictifs”¸ in French) gave the film some artistic attractiveness¸ aesthetic quality and … romance. Otherwise¸ the CIA-MCHULPICH plot would be just a very unpleasant story.”

The picture these films paint of Norodom Sihanouk is ambivalent: While it is easy to see how his self-indulgent movies angered his subjects in a time, when post-independence Cambodia was slipping into crisis, the Royal home movies have some innocent charm. They show a Cambodia, that could have been, even if it really existed only in the wishful thinking of His Majesty at this point and was to be wiped out by the grotesque terror regime of the Khmer rouge shortly afterwards. Darkness over Angkor tries hard to present  modern Cambodia with many shots of buildings by the Khmer modernist architects of the 1960s that the king himself had commissioned. His insistence on the possibility of a modern and international Cambodia make the descent of the country into barbary only a couple of years later appear even more tragic.

K;nig Norodo Sihamoni, todaz king of Cambodia and actor in some of his fathers films

K;nig Norodo Sihamoni, today king of Cambodia and actor in some of his fathers films

Sihanouk is obviously a self-taught film maker, who is blissfully ignorant of narrative conventions of mainstream film making such as the 180 degree rule etc. Then again, color films from the 1960 somehow make everything look good, even though the version of  Darkness over Angkor shown at Meta House derived obviously from the degraded versions that the king used to make available on his website and that have unfortunately disappeared recently. These versions, that are of tragically bad quality, have appeared on pirate DVDs in Cambodia in the last couple of years, as – strangely enough – official versions are impossible to come by.

His political legacy is even more difficult to determine from the movies discussed. While certainly not a full-blooded democrat and with his attempts at post-colonial nation-building tainted by what happened to Cambodia after the coup that over-threw his rule, he still comes across as a more agreeable political figure than most of his political contemporaries in South East Asia (unpleasant autocratic figures such as Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines, Lee Kwan Yew in Singapore or Sukarno in Indonesia) who seemed bent to improve the lot of his country rather than just his own, and who ran a relatively liberal course during his years in power.

Norodom Sihanouk – on the occasion of his birthday – has recently informed well-wishers from his home in Bejing that he does not want to have a long life, but is rather tired of it. There is hoping that nevertheless, there will be more opportunity to hear his unique and often idiosyncratic views on everything from South East Asian politics to film making. He deserves to be heard, as the interviews in the documentaries on him make abundantly clear…

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