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Ly Bun Yim: Puthisen Neang Kongrey (12 Sisters, Cambodia 1968)

March 6, 2012

I wrote the program notes for the screening of Ly Bun Yim´s Cambodian classic “12 Sisters” (Cambodia 1968) for its recent screening at the Berlin Film Festival. You can download them here, or read them below. To find out more about the mind-boggeling special effects of the film, download the Cambodian film magazine Kon that I produced with my students at the Royal University of Phnom Penh and check out the center spread.

The cinematic work of an exceptionally gifted outsider

Tilman Baumgärtel

Puthisen Neang Kongrey by Ly Bun Yim is the pièce de résistance
of the Cambodian cinema of its “Golden Age” during
the 1960s and ’70s. Viewers who are confronted with this terrific
work of filmic Art Brut for the first time will leave the cinema
bewildered, if not with their mouths wide open in complete
awe.
Filmed in Cinemascope by self-taught director, cinematographer,
script writer and set designer Ly Bun Yim in 1968, this is
a work of genuine cinematic excess that brings to mind such
different films as Fellini’s Roma, Chor Yuen’s The Magic Blade
or Nakagawa Nobuo’s Jigoku. Other outsider directors, whose
work could be compared with that of Ly, are Georgian dissident
director Sergei Parajanov and Aleksandr Ptushko, whose fantastic
epic Ilya Muromets had been shown in Phnom Penh in
the late 1950s. Some of the work of Willis O’Brien or Ray Harryhausen,
and early films by Mario Bava, also come to mind.
The story is based on an ancient Khmer myth: A king (veteran
performer Nop Nem) marries twelve orphaned sisters, but
his thirteenth wife (who is really a giant witch who has turned
herself into a beautiful princess) fools him into believing him
that they are witches. The misled king has the twelve sisters
blinded (in a massacre scene that makes the opening sequence
of Un chien andalou look like kid’s stuff) and throws them into
a cave. There they bear his children, which they are consequently
forced to eat, as they have no other food. And that is
just the first thirty minutes!
It does not get any saner after that: the only surviving child
(played in his early years by the son of the director) becomes
a master trickster and manages to feed his mothers and aunts
in their cave by winning the kind of games that are such an important
part of Khmer folklore. His endeavours bring him to
the attention of the king, his father, who challenges him to a
game of chess, which the king loses. He decides to make the
prodigy his adjutant.
I will not reveal the rest of the plot of the movie, but just mention
that it involves a mysterious but kind-hearted hermit, a
flying horse, a flying boar, a drunken orgy, and a glass bottle
containing the eye balls of the twelve sisters, which is kept in
the treasure chamber of the giant. And her beautiful daughter
who wears a crown with a constantly spinning top.
One copy has survived
Unlike most of the films from 1960s Cambodia, this film survives
in relatively good condition, as director Ly Bun Yim
found a print of his film in a French laboratory after he managed
to flee Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge reign of terror
(and went on to open a restaurant in France and later a video
production company in California).
I have not seen a film like Puthisen Neang Kongrey before, and
I don’t think I will see such a film in the foreseeable future. Ly
wastes no time with establishing shots, transitional shots, or
other narrative conventions. Right after the animated credits,
the film grabs us by the collar and never lets go for a minute
after that. Ly, who first taught himself photography as a
youth, manages shots of surreal beauty and strong colour contrasts:
red turbans against blue sky, a whole palette of glitter
in some of the scenes in the palace of the witch. His special effects,
which were realised with the simplest technical means,
are weird and effective.

There are scenes of drunken saturnalia, of unspeakable violence
and of wondrous mysteries, which seem to come right
out of the subconscious of their maker. This is outrageous, noholds-
barred filmmaking by an outsider director who singlehandedly
created his own kind of cinema in a country that had
next to no previous history of filmmaking.
The fact that most of the films of Ly Bun Yim are lost today is a
historic catastrophe that can never be undone. (Only one other
of his films, Sobbseth from 1965, has survived.) Here is a filmmaker
completely unknown in world cinema, yet he created a
filmic universe completely his own. And to think that he did
this with sets that were often moulded out of wax, because he
had no budget for regular building materials and wanted to recycle
the wax for other sets… it’s just mind-boggling!
Tilman Baumgärtel
Ly Bun Yim was born in 1942 in Kompong Cham Province in
eastern Cambodia. While still at school, he began taking photographs
and developing the film himself, even experimenting
with a homemade enlarger and with hand colouring. He spent
his final school year at the Lycée Sisowath in Phnom Penh.
With the proceeds from the sale of a pharmacy he had opened
with his brother shortly after graduating, in 1960 Ly Bun Yim
bought a 16mm camera and film in Hong Kong. In 1961, he set
up his own production company, Runteas Pich (Flash Diamond
Pictures), and made his first film, Runteas Kroursa / Thunderbolt
in the Family, which was a great success in Phnom Penh. There
followed a numbers of films directed by Ly Bun Yim. In 1966,
he bought a cinema in Phnom Penh, and a second one in 1974.
A few months later, the Khmer Rouge seized Phnom Penh. Ly
Bun Yim was able to flee to Vietnam in 1976, and a year later,
he emigrated to France, where he opened a restaurant and established
a taxi company. In 1985, he founded Flash Diamond
Movie Production in California, which made a series of videos
and promotional films for local companies. In 1994, Ly Bun Yim
returned to Phnom Penh, where he now lives.
Films (selection)
1961: Runteas Kroursa / Thunderbolt in the Family. 1965: Sobbseth.
1968: Puthisen Neang Kongrey / 12 Sisters. 1969: Ithik
Sovann Chan Kesor. 1972: Orn euy srey orn / Khmer After Angkor.
1975: Ses Samoth / The Sea Horse.
Country: Cambodia 1968. Production company: Runteas
Pich / Flash Diamond Pictures. Director, screenwriter, director
of photography, editor: Ly Bun Yim.
Kong Sam Oeun (Puthisen), Vireak Dara (Kong Rey), Ly
Ratanak (Puthisen as child), Nop Nem (King), Sak Sisbong (Yeak
Sonthamea, ogre 1), Yeak Nhorm (ogre 2), Kim Nova (Neang
Poev, Puthisen’s mother).
Format: 35mm, colour. Running time: 100 min. Language: Thai

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