A Buddhist Melodrama
While there has been a lot of interest in Chhay Bora’s “Lost Loves”, that premiered at the recent Cambodian Film Festival, quietly another Cambodian film has appeared that is very well worth a look: “Kiles” (Lust) is currently playing at Cine Lux in Phnom Penh, and will move to the big, beautiful Chenla Theatre during the Water Festival this weekend.
The film tells the story of the ill-fated love of a young couple in the Cambodian province during the colonial period. (As I was not able to get my hands on any promotional material, I cannot provide the names of the actors or any other production data for this film. There seems to be virtually no PR material for this movie – that despite the fact, that „Kiles“ was producted by the Cambodian Film Department to raise the standards of Cambodian cinema…)
A geriatric land owner is after the young provincial beauty, too, and as her father has debts with him, he marries her off to the doter who already has four wifes. The film then takes a surprising turn by taking no surprising turn at all. You would expect the young lovers to elope, to kill the old lecher, to kill themselves, but – nothing. Teuy gives in to the arranged marriage with quiet resignation. Her boyfriend Plok (a cremator, who has been stealing golden coins from the mouths of corpses to pay for their wedding) has a couple of auto aggressive fits and dreams of revenge – but even these revenge fantasies end with him on a stake about to be set on fire.
This is a truly Buddhist melodrama, where the tragic couple gives in to the powers that be rather than to rebel. One may think about this passive-fatalistic mindset (that is an important element of the traditional Cambodian mentality) what one wants. However, for a love story it makes for a surprising twist in a plot that seems quite predictable at the beginning. It is hard to imagine that this film would come for another country – and be sponsored by a government institution at that!
It is encouraging to see that there can be Khmer films that can keep national traits while at the same are competently made. The film has beautiful shots of the Cambodian country side, and a set design that is opulent by local standards. Director Narith Roeun, who has previously acted in some movies by Rithy Panh, worked in various functions on some other films of the Cambodian-French arthouse director and has most recently shot two short films for Phnom Penh media archive Bophana, has managed to make a good-looking film with a small budget. The performance of most of the actors is acceptable, but not great. Only the actor who plays the eponymous hero (most likely an amateur) pulls off a fascinating performance as the old erotomane that is partly lewd debauchee, partly childlike bon vivant.
What sets the film apart from the bulk of contemporary Cambodian movies (apart from the fact that it is not a cheesy low-budget horror movie with laughable ghosts and no apparent script) is the attention to detail that the film makers display. A dentist’s drill that is powered by a bicycle, a foot spa with local limes, a hilarious scene at the fortune teller are just some of the examples that show the care that was taken in recreating a past that has become alien to most Cambodians. The credit for this goes to Cambodian cinema elder statesmen Mao Ayuth (The Crocodile), who wrote the script for the film.
„Kiles“ shows that it is possible for Cambodian cinema to stay true to itself, while moving on at the same time. Now the question is whether the local audience supports the film in numbers that will fill the huge Chenla Hall next weekend, and make this film not just a government-sponsored exercise in quality film making, but a success that encourages further work in this direction.
The rustic final song is the most beautiful contemporary Cambodian songs that I have heard in a long time. If it is a contemporary song, that is…