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Cambodia International Film Festival: The Secret Contract

October 21, 2010
Screening of "The Secret Contract"

Screening of "The Secret Contract"

My first screening at the Cambodia International Film Festival was a video production from the 1990s, “The Secret Contract”, director and exact year of production unknown.

This was one of the highlights of the festival, at least for me, as until recently it was recieved wisdom that all of the video productions of that period were lost. After the Khmer Rouge dictatorship and the Vietnamese occupation, the Cambodian film industry started to produce films again in the late 80s, exclusively on video, and supposedly in 1990 around 200 films were made. That oversaturation with low budget flicks killed the market again, and in the following years, the number of productions went down significantly. As most of these films were shot on VHS, they were thought to be lost for good. However, around 10o of these films have been found recently at the Department of Cinema.

I was thrilled to see one of the films from that period, even though it was hard work to actually sit through this melodrama. (“To sit” is a metaphor, as there were no seats available at the outdoor screening of the film at a parking lot of the newly developed Koh Pich quarter of Phnom Penh that will be the site of numerous shopping malls. The audience watched the films from the seats of their motos, if they did not have to stand. I had to hang on to my bike. The soundtrack of the movie had to compete with the music from a near-by stall that was peddeling sim cards, the music from a near-by carnival and the positively crazy night time traffic in this part of town…)

The story involves a Cambodian doctor who returns to Phnom Penh from his French exile, to look for the son of one of his supporters in France. It is all about love  triangles, amorous misunderstandings, lost honor, bitter tears, sulking women and jealousy. What makes the film especially interesting is that the story takes place in the movie industry, even though not much is made out of it. A lot of scenes take place in a hospital, where a number of the characters end up for different reasons. The woman have 80s-style big hair, and the main actors wear a different dress in every single scene. Basically, the film is a mess. However, there is some kind of weird shrewdness in some of the shots, for example, when the camera moves out of the potted plants to reveal an ambiguous scene.

I am too tired to recap the convoluted story of the movie at this point. But even though the film maker avoided shooting at outdoor location – probably to keep Third-World-mysery from seeping in to their high society story – you still get to see some interesting shots of Phnom Penh, including the National Theatre, that burned down a couple of years later, a “Chaktomuk Restaurant” that must have been at the banks of the Tonle Sap/Mekong, where the Himawari Hotel is these days, and a shot of my university at a time, when it was the only building on this part of Russian Boulevard.

A highlight of the screening was a Moto driver who drove over the household-variety electric cables and unplugged the LCD and the DVD player 15 minutes into the film. The screening only proceeded after the cable was marked with some tree branches to prevent future accidents.

The audience consisted mostly out of passers-by. Reportedly, the festival screenings in the various cinemas and screening venues in Phnom Penh were not well-attended so far.

Tonight’s screening, however, gave you an idea what watching movies must have been like anno 1990, when the first, poorly-made Cambodian films were released to an audience, that was ready to watch anything in the cinemas that slowly started to open again at that time.

Accidental festival goers...

Accidental festival goers: the audience of "Secret Contract".

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