Tea Lim Kun: Puos Keng Kang / The Snake Man Pt 1 (1972)
Here are the program notes that I wrote for the screening of Tea Lim Kun´s “The Snake Man” at the Berlin Film Festival. Download the pdf here, or read the text below. More on classical Cambodian cinema in our student magazine Kon.
The Asian Medusa
Of all the Cambodian directors of the “Golden Age” of Cambodian
cinema between 1960 and 1975 whose films survive, Tea
Lim Koun was the most gifted storyteller. Whether it is the
melodrama Vil Vinh Na Bang / Forget Me Not, My Dear (1965), his
oldest surviving film, or the comedy Achey Neang Krort / Achey
and Neang Krort (1968), his films show a firm grip of his narrative.
While his films still follow the occasionally quite sprawling
narrative logic of Cambodian movies of that time, he knows
how to keep his viewer engaged throughout the story, and that
is more than can be said about a good number of other films
from that time.
His contemporary Ly Bun Yim was the master of the fantastic
and that includes his famous special effects that are often
still stunning today, even though they were usually achieved
with very simple means. His colleague Yvon Hem got a reputation
for good-looking studio films that were up to the highest
technical standards that Cambodian cinema was able to
achieve at that time. But Tea Lim Koun is the master teller of
tales among the three top filmmakers of that time. While some
of the other films of that period are fascinating precisely because
their makers were unaware of narrative conventions, his
films are well told, well shot and full of atmosphere. Koun did
not specialise in any particular genre: he made the ever-popular
mythological films, melodramas and even a comedy, a genre
that Cambodian directors rarely considered. People called him
a “perfectionist”, and it shows.
Puos Keng Kang was a hit not just in Cambodia, but was also
shown in Thailand. Golden Harvest released it in Hong Kong,
and there is some evidence that it was even screened in Vietnam.
After the success of the film in Thailand, Tea Lim Koun directed
a prequel as a co-production with a Thai film company.
The Snake Man 2 starred, again, Chea Yothorn and Dy Saveth.
Both Cambodian movie stars had become all the rage with the
Thai audience due to the popularity of this and other Cambodian
films in Thailand. For this film, the two Cambodian stars
were teamed up with the famous Thai actress Aranya Namwong,
and the film was released in 1973.
A wig with living snakes
The success of the film was due not only to its superior quality
(even though this is one of the finest Cambodian films that have
survived the Khmer Rouge). Audiences in many Asian countries
were able to relate to the plot, as the story of this Asian Medusa
is a popular tale in many countries of Southeast Asia.
The story of the girl who had snakes for hair comes from an ancient
Khmer folk tale. The narrative starts with Neang Ny, the
wife of a farmer, who has an affair with a snake to get back at
her abusive husband. She gets pregnant, and the husband kills
her, but not before she gives birth to a bunch of snakes. The
story, as with many Khmer folk tales, is meandering and long
and involves both the adventures of her son and her granddaughter,
the “snake girl” who had to wear a wig with live
snakes for the movie! (The young actress died shortly after the
production of the film, though apparently not due to the ill effects
of snake bites.)
Unlike other filmmakers from that period, Tea has a good understanding
of the techniques of conventional story telling
in cinema, and avoids the non-diegetic diversions in his films
that often confuse the viewer in other Khmer movies from that time.
He breaks his scenes down in different shots without
violating the rules of continuity editing. And he has a fine
sense for the little details that make a film precious, as with
one scene, where the little “Snake Girl” steals offerings from a
Buddha statue because she is so hungry.
One particularly wild and surprisingly sensual sequence shows
how the evil stepmother tries to seduce the Snake Man. The
special effects are convincingly creepy, and one scene in the
cave of the truly demonic witch is positively scary. Just watch
the ruthless sadistic glee in the face of the witch as she forces
a magical pill into the mouth of her victim!
Puos Keng Kang led to a couple of other movies that included
snakes as an important part of their plot, most notably Teeda
Sok Puos / The Snake Girl (1974), produced by star Dy Saveth.
Tea Lim Koun’s film has been remade most recently by Fai Sam
Ang in 1991. This film was not, as is often claimed, the first
Cambodian film after the Khmer Rouge. But it was – and still
is – the first and only Khmer movie that was released internationally
on DVD under the international title Snaker. This
film was a Thai co-production, starring Thai leading man Winai
Kraibutr and Khmer stars Pich Chanbormey and Tep Rindaro.
Fai Sam Ang went on to make other successful movies that
were “high budget” by Cambodian standards, including his
2003 version of the Khmer classic narrative Tum Teavy / Tum
and Teavy (2003). Tilman Baumgärtel
Tea Lim Koun was born on August 18, 1934 in Kien Svay, Cambodia.
As a child, he enjoyed watching movies and taking
photos. In 1964 he directed his first film, Lea Heuy Duong
Dara / Good bye Duong Dara, which was shown at the Cambodian
Film Festival in 1964 and won an award for best direction
presented by King Norodom Sihanouk. Until the Khmer Rouge
took over in 1975, he shot a number of dramas (Vil Vign Na Bang,
Peouv Chouk Sor and Ok Leah Tronoum), comedies (Achey Neang
Krot and Achey Hal Sreuy) and the two classics of Cambodian
cinema: Puos Keng Kang (part 1) / The Snake Man (awarded
at the Asean Film Festival in Singapore in 1973) and Puos
Keng Kang (part 2) / The Marvelous Snake (awarded at the Asean
Film Festival in Taipei in 1974). In 1975, Tea Lim Koun had
to leave Cambodia for Montreal, Canada where he produced a
film in 1984, Sneah 4 Rodeuv / 4 Seasons of Love, a musical story
starring Dy Saveth.
Country: Cambodia 1970. Production company: Dararoath
Films. Director, screenwriter, editor: Tea Lim Koun. Director
of photography: Tea Lim Koun, Hou Seng Hap. Costume designer,
make-up artist: Tea My Lang.
Cast: Chea Yothorn (snake man), Dy Saveth (Soriya), Peov
Vicheth (the snake man’s daughter), Saksi Sbong (the
millionaire’s wife), Mongdolin (millionaire).
Format: DVD (from the 16mm print), colour. Running time: 164
min. Language: Khmer.