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Cambodian cinema: what to watch…

February 27, 2011
The old Phnom Pich cinema on Monivong Boulevard

The old Phnom Pich cinema on Monivong Boulevard

In this week´s 7 Days, the weekend supplement of the Phnom Penh Post, is a special on the Oscars, that includes one piece on Cambodian Cinema by me. Look for it here.

Cambodian cinema: what to watch…

Despite a lack of funding and the effects of the Khmer Rouge regime, there are still some locally produced diamonds in the rough to be enjoyed for the intrepid movie adventurer

By Tilman Baumgärtel

The first Cambodian film was produced in 1958: Phkar Rik Phkar Rouy (Blossoming Flower, Withering  Flower) by Som Sam Al. Before that, only the French colonial masters (and some western production companies that made use of Angkor Wat as an exotic location, such as Richard Brooks´ Lord Jim (1965)) were able to make films in Cambodia.

Phkar Rik Phkar Rouy was shot in black and white and without sound, as the necessary equipment for sound recording was not yet available in the country. In the decade and a half that followed, an incredible 450 films were produced – mostly by self-taught directors who started a film studio as a family business. Many of these films were based on folk stories, fairy tales and the Reamker, the Khmer version of the hindu epic Ramayana. They feature beautiful princesses, brave princes, witches, giants, flying horses and all manner of magic and wonders. In their best moments, they are extreme, excessive and completely unconcerned with plausibility, reason or logic – just as good fairy tales are supposed to be.

But there were also contemporary films (mostly melodramas, almost no comedies), that show a surprisingly modern and cosmopolitan country. One of the most productive film makers was King Norodom Sihanouk, who used cinema as a means to communicate his idea of a modern Cambodia that was still aware of its glorious past to the (often illiterate) masses. Some film stars became widely popular, such as super-handsome leading man Kong Sam Ouern, who reportedly acted in over 100 films in a career that spanned 15 years.

Khmer diva Dy Saveth, who survived the Khmer Rouge and is again a star today, founded her own production company and wrote, produced and co-directed, with her husband, a dozen films featuring herself, while still taking parts in productions by other companies. The Khmer Rouge ended all film production in the country and killed many of the most popular actors and directors as prime examples of the degenerate, westernised “new people”. The Cambodian film industry never recovered from that loss.

The films that were made in the 1980s and 1990s were mostly melodramatic weepies or horror films with special effects straight out of a ketchup bottle. Recently, though, a couple of quality films, both features and documentaries, have emerged, and there is still hope for the cinema of Cambodia.

Most of the films from the “Golden Age of Khmer Cinema” in the 1960s and early 1970s have been lost (the films of King Father being a fortunate exception), and only around 40 can still be found in blurry, faded and choppy versions on pirated VCDs. The Bophana Audiovisual Resource Center on Street 200 in Phnom Penh has a great collection that includes some of the films from the “Golden Age”, plus enough documentaries and news reports that you could spend weeks there.

I learned a lot about Cambodian cinema when I did research with my students at the Department of Media and Communication for a magazine project on the topic (the result of which, Kon: The Cinema of Cambodia is available at Monument Books). Given the special situation of Cambodian cinema, it seems impossible to come up with a straightforward “Top 10” of the best films. Rather, here is a viewer’s guide to films that give an idea of Cambodian cinema, both past and present, in chronological order:

1.  A film from the colonial period that deserves mention here is Danseuses Cambodgiennes du Roi Norodom and the five other shorts by Gabriele Veyre, a cameraman of the Lumière Brothers, the French inventors of cinema. In 1899, Veyre travelled to what was then the French Protectorate Indochina, to present the new invention, a film camera cum projector, but also to shoot films. The six 30-second films that he made show the Royal Ballet performing, King Norodom himself in his carriage, the Royal elephants wandering through the streets of Phnom Penh, and ox carts in front of Angkor Wat: priceless documents of tremendous beauty.

2.  Under the Eye of Buddha (Sous l’Oeil de Boudha, 1923) by A. Joyeux was the first feature film shot on Cambodian soil. Produced by a French outfit based in hanoi with Vietnamese actors, partly shot in Angkor Wat, and underwritten by the colonial government, this semi-official silent movie is really a potboiler: a young actor frees an abducted Vietnamese general who is held at the ruins of an Angkor Wat. The story is a little confusing, but everything was shot on actual location and you do get to see an Angkor Wat that was still partly in the jungle at the time. Unfortunately, it is only available at the Vietnam Film Archive in Hanoi.

3.  If you are interested in the cinematographic works of King Father, start with The Joy of Living (1968), available at Bophana. It is a campy satire on the lifestyle of the rich, famous and hedonistic in Cambodia’s swinging sixties – basically King Sihanouk’s own environment. A prince is arrested because he runs an illegal gambling den in his mansion. his young wife, played by Saksi Sbong, the all-purpose-femme fatale of Cambodian cinema, goes on a rampage, having affair after affair, including one with a wealthy hotelier, who is played by real-life high-ranking general Niek Tioulong.

4.  The pièce de résistance of the “Golden Age of Khmer cinema” is undoubtedly 12 Sisters (Puthisen Neang Korngrey, 1968) by visionary director Ly Bun Yim. Twelve sisters are abandoned in the jungle by their parents who are too poor to raise them. They are found by a prince, who marries all 12 of them.  Unfortunately, his 13th wife convinces him that they are witches. (In reality, she is an ogre, who has transformed herself into a dazzling beauty.) The king has all the sisters blinded and throws them into a deep cave, where they bear him 12 children. Since they have nothing to eat, they are forced to devour their babies. Only one son survives the massacre, and goes on to become buddies with the prince, marries his daughter, and eventually frees his mother and aunts from the cave. Oh, and he also finds their eyeballs in the lair of the ogre, and makes them see again. This outlandish plot is shot in a no-holds-barred-style in Cinemascope and often psychedelic colours by Ly Bun Yim, whose low budget special effects still make jaws drop today. This film would be bona-fide international cult material, if only the director (who survived the Khmer Rouge in French exile) could decide to have the film re-released on DVD.

5. Other classics from that period include Chhea Nuk’s Panchapor and Tevy (Panchapor Tevy, 1971), a Khmer version of the Shaw-Brothers blockbuster The Love Eterne from 1963, one of the most successful Chinese films of all time, and Lay Nguong heng’s Tep Sodchadan (1968) that delivered such a memorable depiction of  the evils of feudalism that it was reportedly even screened under the Khmer Rouge.

6.  And then there are the snake movies, a Cambodian subgenre of the horror film. Tea Lim Kun’s The Snake Man (Puos Keng Kang, 1972), a very fine Asian ghost story, was so popular it was remade in 2001 by another Khmer director, Fai Sam Ang. (This remake is so far the only Cambodian film after the Khmer Rouge period that was – under the title Snaker – released internationally on DVD.) The Snake Girl (Teeda Sok Puos, 1974) also features a Cambodian vision of Medusa, a girl with snakes instead of hair, played by Dy Saveth. And yes, those snakes on her head were real. (Look for these films on pirated VCDs at the Central or Russian Market. Some are also available at Bophana.)

7. These films are some of the most memorable productions from that Golden Age – not just of the local film industry but, in many ways, of Cambodia itself. If you want a really haunting taste of the country that Cambodia might or could have been, look for the untitled rushes of a never-finished documentary by French film maker Jean Pierre Jansen, circa 1969, in the Bophana catalogue. The takes of a fashion shoot with parasol-toting models at the beach in Kep and the performance of a rock band in the Olympic Stadium (with a singer who looks uncannily like the young Hun Sen) inspire grief for the country that Cambodia aspired to be under King Sihanouk’s rule.

8.  The Khmer Rouge, who drowned these aspirations in blood, made movies, too. Most of them are amateurish propaganda films in black and white without sound that visualise their hatred of anything cultural and modern. Again, the 78 films that are still available in restored versions can be viewed at Bophana. Look for the documentary on an “extraordinary party meeting” in Phnom Penh’s Olympic Stadium, where well-fed Khmer Rouge leaders lecture undernourished Cambodians on the benefits of socialism, or the super-creepy film documenting a visit of King Sihanouk and his wife Monique (both clad in the black pyjamas of the Khmer Rouge) to Angkor Wat.

9.  The first Cambodian feature film that was made after the Khmer Rouge is Shadow of Darkness (Sror Morl Anthakal, 1987) by Yvon Hem, a veteran director, who had produced some of the most successful films of the Golden Age. He shot with a grant from Oxfam and used equipment he had found in the streets of Phnom Penh and managed to restore himself.

10. The 1990s saw the rise of Rithy Panh, a Cambodian who learned the craft of film making in exile in France. Rice People (Neak Sre, 1994) was his international debut into the world of art house film making. But the film to watch is his documentary S-21 – The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine (S-21, La Machine de Mort Khmère Rouge, 2003), where former inmates of Phnom Penh’s infamous prison confront their jailers.

And local cinema of today? It has become commonplace to dismiss contemporary Cambodian cinema as amateurish horror films that were shot in a week with a budget of $10,000. A look at the weekly offerings of Cine Lux, the last surviving cinema, (the others have been turned into restaurants, KTVs, snooker halls or worse), seems to confirm this point of view. However, there is still hope: Chhay Bora’s Lost Loves (2011), a family drama set during the rule of the Khmer Rouge that will hopefully be released in the country soon, shows that Cambodians can again make films that meet international production standards. Enemies of the People (2010) by Rob Lemkin and Phnom Penh Post reporter Teth Sambath was shortlisted for an Oscar for best documentary and won countless awards at international festivals, including Sundance. And with Narith Roeun, Cambodian cinema has a young, home-grown director who allows for great hope. his feature-length debut Kiles (2010) did relatively well during its stint at Cine Lux, and his two shorts, The Hermit and the Tiger and Two Neighbours, both produced by Bophana and available in their collection, are two feel-good films based on Cambodian folklore that you can take in with your kids. There is also an increasing number of new Cambodian documentaries that you can catch every month screening at Meta house.

But even some of the popular feature films from the last decade have their merits. Some of the best were made in the years following the anti-Thai riots in 2003, when a temporary ban on the previously very popular Thai productions led local audiences to take note of their own cinema again, and a short-lived renaissance of Cambodian film set in.

Mao Ayuth’s The Crocodile (Yob Mouy Kroy Sangkream) from 2005 drew huge crowds at its screenings at Chenla hall at 2009’s Water Festival. My personal favourite, however, is Alev, a rogue’s tale that is available on subtitled DVD. I do not even know the name of the director or the year of production, but this crazy little film proves that Cambodian cinema can still be as fantastic, as outrageous and as out-and-out bizarre as during its Golden Age.

Dr Tilman Baumgärtel teaches at the Department of Media and Communication (DMC) at the Royal University of Phnom Penh.

One Comment leave one →
  1. April 20, 2011 8:38 am

    I never know what was the first Cambodian film production and thanks for mentioned in your article. This is useful information.

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