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Peov Chouk Sor (Lady White Lotus, 1967)

March 8, 2012

And yet another text for the catalogue of the Berlinale that I wrote for their focus on Cambodian cinema, the melodrama Peov Chouk Sor (Lady White Lotus, 1967) by Tea Lim Koun. Pdf here, text below.

An anti-feudalist fairytale
Peov Chouk Sor is one of the anti-feudalist escape fantasies
that Cambodian folklore is so rich in. As in Tep Sodachan, one of
the best-known Cambodian fairytales, which Lay Nuong Heng
filmed in 1968, Peov Chouk Sor is about the impossible love between
a mortal and a “teptida”, an angel in the Cambodian saga
world.
The poor farmer Songvat (Chea Yuthorn) lives in misery and
owes money to the village rich man (Mongdolin). One night,
four female angels descend from heaven to earth to see what
the fate of humans is like. Before setting off on their outing,
they are warned not to take any property from humans. But
one of the angels, Peov Chouk Sor (Dy Saveth), inadvertently
separates a cucumber from its vine in Songvat’s garden and
must therefore remain on earth for the next seven years.
To avoid recognition, she transforms herself into a hare. On
a hunt, the village rich man shoots and wounds her. Songvat
finds the injured hare and nurses her back to health. In animated
sequences that apparently put the 1960s Cambodian
movie public into throes of enthusiasm, Peov Chouk Sor again
and again reassumes her true shape and, with her miraculous
powers, sets the table in Vart’s modest cottage with delicacies.
Torn clothing sews itself, and the broom sweeps the floor
on its own. Finally Vart discovers the angel, the two of them
marry, and they would live peacefully ever after by growing
corn – if only the village rich man hadn’t cast an eye on the
beautiful woman.
His attempts to make Peov Chouk Sor his fifth wife are slapstick
comedy. But when the four wives hatch plans to get rid of
their rival, an abyss opens up. Led by Mae Meoun, who in 1960s
Cambodian cinema was always on hand to play the evil motherin-
law or conniving wife who beat up or kicked unwanted and
other defenceless opponents or dragged them out of the house
by the hair, the wives repeatedly attack Peov Chouk Sor and finally
scald her face in the rice cooking pot.
In the fairytale, the angel must finally return to heaven, leaving
her husband and their child behind. But in Peov Chouk Sor,
the relationship between human and angel ends in a suicide
pact – though this is not the end of the story. Peov Chouk Sor
turns into a lotus, her beloved Songvat turns into a butterfly,
and in their next life – this is a fairytale from a Buddhist culture
– the two of them live happily and contentedly together,
as the reward for the adversities to which they willingly
submitted.
Happy end in their next life
But the reincarnation happy ending should not hide the fact
that Peov Chouk Sor depicts a society in which might makes
right and the poor and weak are helplessly vulnerable to the
rich and powerful. In this way, sagas like Peov Chouk Sor and
Tep Sodachan reflect the social situation of the great majority
of Cambodia’s rural population, which – now as ever – lives
as peasants from hand to mouth. They were and are helplessly
exposed to the arbitrary power and greed of a small stratum of
the affluent and influential – a fate that they generally must
endure with a patience that can truly be called “of angels”.
The depictions of this misery in the film version of Tep Sodachan
were so dramatic that even the Khmer Rouge, otherwise
so deeply hostile to culture, supposedly showed the film
on their collective farms to remind people how terrible life had
been before the revolution. Peov Chouk Sor would be less suitable
for such propaganda purposes. It is too comical over long
stretches. But that doesn’t mean its analysis of society is any
less bleak.
Even the love of a “teptida” can help the hero out of his earthly
woes for only a short time. In a world in which a few rich people
can treat the poor however they want, even an angel can’t
be happy and content for long. Wonders and precious stones
with magical powers can’t help. Unfortunately, this message is
as timely in Cambodia today as it was when the film was first
made.
In Peov Chouk Sor, Tea Lim Kun once again proves a stylistically
sure craftsman who can tell a universal story in images
rich in atmospheric detail and quickly draw the viewer into the
fantastic tale. The parting at the river is among the most gripping
and visually best-realised scenes in the history of Cambodian
film.
My thanks go to my research assistant Pov Leakhena Nov for
translations and explanations of the Cambodian world of sagas.
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 directing 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 with a
prize at the Asean Film Festival in Singapore in 1973) and Puos
Keng Kang (part 2) / The Marvelous Snake (awarded with a
prize 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 starring Dy Saveth. Tea Lim Koun lives in Montreal.
Country: Cambodia 1967. Production company: Dararoath
Films. Director, screenwriter, editor: Tea Lim Koun. Director
of photography: Tea Lim Koun, Hou Seng Hap. Costume design,
make-up artist: Tea My Lang.
Cast: Chea Yuthorn (Songvat), Dy Saveth (Peov Chouk Sor),
Rosanna (Peov Chouk Sor’s sister), Mongdolin (Sethei).
Format: 16mm, colour. Running time: 110 min. Language:
Khmer.

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