Not funny, but sad…
Contemporary Cambodian film production has come to an almost complete halt. But if a new movie comes out that hits the nerve of the people, it does not have to be particularly smart or well-executed to draw large crowds. “The 25-Year-old Girl” is currently filling both the old Lux Cinema as well as Chenla Hall, and I had the unusual experience of watching a Cambodian film (with English subtitles) in an almost sold-out cinema. The “most romantic comedy” of 2012, as the distributor calls it, is not particular funny and has plot holes so big that one could drive a car through. But it got many belly laughs from the mostly teenage audience. And it contains, almost as an afterthought, some observations about contemporary Cambodia that are surprisingly on the spot.
Director Poan Phoung Bopha is probably the most active and successful film maker in Cambodia today. Currently working for the CTN, she was responsible for some of the most popular movies films of the last decade. Last year her TV series “Love for Auction” was taken off the air, after the Ministry of Information complained about the drama that revolved around a young beauty that auctioned off the right to marry her for a starting price for one million dollar. While “The 25-Year-old girl” puts its observations about the increasing materialism and the greed of the Khmer upper class in comedic terms, it nevertheless shows some of the more repulsive aspects of Cambodian society in an astonishingly unflattering light.
Dalis (popular singer Ny Molika) gets hit by a car, when she is about to meet her boyfriend in front of Wat Phnom. When she wakes up from her coma, she behaves like a seven-year old. (The plot might be inspired by Hong Kong Cat III soft sex film “The Fruit is Swelling” from the 1990s, but has – of course, we are in highly moral Cambodia -no sex.) Various more or less funny situations follow, until eventually her metamorphosis is reversed. Which is unfortunately not the end of the films as various melodramatic twists and turns waste the time of the viewer for almost 30 more minutes.
Ok, let’s face it, Ny Molika’s impersonation of a seven-year old gets positively annoying after about ten minutes. The humorous scenes are not overtly funny and often seem to go on forever. The films plays in a fantasy Cambodia, where everybody lives in spanking clean villas and apartments full of flat screen TVs and shiny furniture right out of the shop, and nobody has brown skin. There is no garbage on the streets, and everybody drives expensive cars. Many details of the story remain hazy, including flashbacks of scenes that never appeared in the movie.
So what is interesting about this film? First of all, the film sheds a light on the particular relation of Cambodians to their own history. Let’s see: if somebody is 25 in 2012, she must have been born in 1987, right? So, when she was seven, it must have been in 1994. At this time, there was no KFC, no hamburger or pizza joints in the war-torn country that had just left the period of UNTAC control behind. So how come that our protagonist keeps whining for pizzas, hot dogs and burgers? This kind of junk food has started to fatten the children of the small Cambodian upper and middle class only in the last couple of years, with fast food restaurants like Pizza Company, Sveesons, Lucky Burger or KFC seemingly opening new branches every week in Phnom Penh recently.
Obviously, this 25 year old girl not a child of the historic past. She is a child of the present, where indeed a (statistically marginal) number of children are driven by their Nouveau Riche parents in their SUVs to fast food restaurants to stuff their little mouths with generous servings of too much sugar, fat and bad carbohydrates, a practice that starts to show in the first generation of over-weight children since the Khmer Rouge, if not in the entire history of Cambodia.
These kids are indeed often like the annoying whining brat that Ny Monika depicts rather ineptly. The majority of Cambodian children, of course, are still raised in the traditional way, are seen, but not heard, and basically do as their parents tell them without much fuzz. So, probably without being fully aware of it, the film does bring a new social species to the screen. That also goes for Dalis’ spoilt-brat boyfriend, an unpleasant character with gel-spiked hair who keeps squeezing his plump body – that looks like it has become pudgy from too many boozy nights in the Karaoke joint – in tasteless , over-the-top designer clothes.
Some other details of the story also reflect nicely – even if the film makers might not be fully conscious of it – the occasionally downright medieval ways, in which rich Cambodians treat people who are poorer and weaker than they are. When the spoilt-brat boy friend pushes the seven-year-old version of his former girlfriend Dalis away, because she bothers him on a drunken night out with his new prostitute sweetheart, it appears as a fitting depiction how the upper class of Cambodia treats the poor and helpless. The way he tries to buy her back, when she returns to her normal state – apparently mostly to please his parents, who were about to engineer their marriage – is another interesting comment on the social relations between Cambodians.
In a Cambodia, where a young woman apparently cannot walk alone in the streets at night for five minutes without a group of ”gangsters” trying to gang rape her (as one scene in the movie makes clear), where the maid will let the thieves in when you turn her back for you for a minute and leave her alone with your child, the law of the jungle is the most reliable social fabric. That might not be the message that the creators of this comedy wanted to put forward. But this is how Cambodia comes across in a movie that eventually seems less funny than downright depressing.