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Thrills and Astonishment: Cambodian Cinema. An Overview

March 9, 2012

Last but not least, the introduction to Cambodian cinema that I wrote for the catalog of the Berlin Film Festival.This year the Berlinale had a mini-retrospective of classic Cambodian films that you are unlikely to see anywhere else any time soon. The reason was the European premiere of Davy Chou´s great dcoumentary “Golden Slumbers” on the Golden Age of Cambodian cinema.

You can download the whole catalog as an ebook here, or the section on Cambodian cinema here, or you can read my contribution on the history of Cambodian cinema below. For more on Cambodian cinema, check the Cambodian film magazine Kon that I produced with my students at the Royal University of Phnom Penh.

Thrills and Astonishment:

Cambodian Cinema. An Overview

Sunday at the Movies Sunday evening, seven o’clock, in front of the Cine Lux in Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia. Groups of young people, dressed up for a special evening, throng the sidewalk between the tightly packed rows of motorbikes. The guys have used gel to spike their hair into hedgehog-like quills; the girls have bushy Cleopatra hairdos like the ones they’ve seen in the Korean telenovelas that are so popular in Cambodia these days. It smells as if a can of deodorant had exploded. The reason for the crowd is that another new Cambodian film has come out that is worth watching. For ten days, the comedy Kumarey Ayuk Mapeiy Pram Chnam / The 25-Year-old Girl (2012) has been playing in the Lux, the last Art Deco movie palace still open in the Cambodian capital, and in Chenla Hall, a large multipurpose hall from the 1960s. If someone wants to screen a film in Cambodia, he has to rent the cinema for it himself – a major risk for every film producer and one of the reasons why the country’s film production has been running in low gear for almost a decade. Widespread DVD piracy and a population that, in one of the world’s poorest countries, has to think twice before spending money on unnecessary luxury like going to the movies are more reasons for the decline of the Cambodian film industry. But a film like The 25-Year-old Girl shows that there is definitely an audience for Cambodian films if they touch a nerve. Such films don’t even have to be especially clever or well-made. The “most romantic comedy of 2012”, as the English-language promotional material on the film calls it, is not terribly funny. The script is full of inconsistencies, and the actors are terrible. But somehow the director Poan Phoung Bopha has managed to reach the audience with her comedy about a young woman who, after a car accident, behaves like a seven-year-old.

Poan has made more than twenty films since 1989; she also
wrote and produced a number of soap operas for the CTN
broadcasting company. Most of her films are melodramas with
heavy moral messages. But often she manages to season such
mediocre plots with observations of a Cambodia that is slowly,
very slowly, beginning to recover from the murderous Khmer
Rouge dictatorship and the subsequent Vietnamese occupation.
Her works thus rise above local movie production, which
consist almost entirely of the cheapest possible ghost stories,
romantic melodramas set in the world of the rich and beautiful,
and film versions of sagas from the rich Cambodian tradition,
which, however, often turn out to be unintentionally
funny. The average budget of these films seldom exceeds
US $10,000, and well-trained film workers are as rare as equipment
that meets professional standards. Cambodia has no film
school, no studios, and no labs; and most Cambodian films
make this obvious.
Cambodia’s nouveau riches
Poan’s last work was a soap opera about a beautiful young
woman who offers the right to marry her on auction; minimum
bid: one million dollars. This satire of the increasing materialism
and the values of the small Cambodian upper class, which
has comfortably divided among itself the country’s sources
of income, was too much for the authoritarian government of
Prime Minister Hun Sen. After six episodes, the Culture Ministry
forbid the broadcast of any further ones on the grounds
that the series violated “Cambodian customs”.
In the guise of a comedy, The 25-Year-old Girl also contains
some keen observations of the spreading consumerism and the
unscrupulousness of Cambodia’s nouveaux riches. Are these
barbs what make the film popular? Or do people crowd the cinemas
because the leading roles are played by beloved singers
like Ny Monika and Pen Chomrong? Is it enough that here
a Cambodian film can be seen that fulfils at least the most elementary
quality standards of contemporary film? Or is it simply
the fact that Poan Phoung Bopha has made a “romcom” (romantic
comedy) – a genre that guarantees success all over the
world, but that has seldom been produced in Cambodia?
One way or another, the director has managed something that
no one else has done in Cambodia in a long time: to regularly
turn out films that people want to watch. The Lux, through
summer 2011 the only cinema in Phnom Penh, a city of two million,
otherwise shows primarily ghost films from Thailand and
Indonesia – to a nearly empty auditorium. Most of the twenty
viewers who loll about in an average screening are teenagers
who seem to be seeking primarily a dark, unobserved room to
be alone with their sweethearts in. For half a year, Phnom Penh
has also been home to two multiplex cinemas with digital projectors,
3D films, and air conditioning. But until now they have
offered the familiar Transformers-Harry-Potter-Mr.-Bean diet
typical of mega-cinemas around the world. Local productions
have no chance here. Some smaller cities in Cambodia, including
Siem Reap, Battambang, and Kampot, have small movie
houses that show films at irregular intervals.
A declining film industry
The unfavourable production conditions, but also the Cambodian
film producers’ lack of willingness to adjust to changed
audience expectations beyond the stereotypical, lowestbudget
productions, are among the reasons why the country’s Poan has made more than twenty films since 1989; she also
wrote and produced a number of soap operas for the CTN
broadcasting company. Most of her films are melodramas with
heavy moral messages. But often she manages to season such
mediocre plots with observations of a Cambodia that is slowly,
very slowly, beginning to recover from the murderous Khmer
Rouge dictatorship and the subsequent Vietnamese occupation.
Her works thus rise above local movie production, which
consist almost entirely of the cheapest possible ghost stories,
romantic melodramas set in the world of the rich and beautiful,
and film versions of sagas from the rich Cambodian tradition,
which, however, often turn out to be unintentionally
funny. The average budget of these films seldom exceeds
US $10,000, and well-trained film workers are as rare as equipment
that meets professional standards. Cambodia has no film
school, no studios, and no labs; and most Cambodian films
make this obvious.
Cambodia’s nouveau riches
Poan’s last work was a soap opera about a beautiful young
woman who offers the right to marry her on auction; minimum
bid: one million dollars. This satire of the increasing materialism
and the values of the small Cambodian upper class, which
has comfortably divided among itself the country’s sources
of income, was too much for the authoritarian government of
Prime Minister Hun Sen. After six episodes, the Culture Ministry
forbid the broadcast of any further ones on the grounds
that the series violated “Cambodian customs”.
In the guise of a comedy, The 25-Year-old Girl also contains
some keen observations of the spreading consumerism and the
unscrupulousness of Cambodia’s nouveaux riches. Are these
barbs what make the film popular? Or do people crowd the cinemas
because the leading roles are played by beloved singers
like Ny Monika and Pen Chomrong? Is it enough that here
a Cambodian film can be seen that fulfils at least the most elementary
quality standards of contemporary film? Or is it simply
the fact that Poan Phoung Bopha has made a “romcom” (romantic
comedy) – a genre that guarantees success all over the
world, but that has seldom been produced in Cambodia?
One way or another, the director has managed something that
no one else has done in Cambodia in a long time: to regularly
turn out films that people want to watch. The Lux, through
summer 2011 the only cinema in Phnom Penh, a city of two million,
otherwise shows primarily ghost films from Thailand and
Indonesia – to a nearly empty auditorium. Most of the twenty
viewers who loll about in an average screening are teenagers
who seem to be seeking primarily a dark, unobserved room to
be alone with their sweethearts in. For half a year, Phnom Penh
has also been home to two multiplex cinemas with digital projectors,
3D films, and air conditioning. But until now they have
offered the familiar Transformers-Harry-Potter-Mr.-Bean diet
typical of mega-cinemas around the world. Local productions
have no chance here. Some smaller cities in Cambodia, including
Siem Reap, Battambang, and Kampot, have small movie
houses that show films at irregular intervals.
A declining film industry
The unfavourable production conditions, but also the Cambodian
film producers’ lack of willingness to adjust to changed
audience expectations beyond the stereotypical, lowestbudget
productions, are among the reasons why the country’s film production has dwindled rapidly in recent years: in 2007,
thirty-five films were still produced; in 2008, it was twentyfive;
and in 2009, thirteen films. Some of these movies didn’t
run in the cinemas for even a week. No statistics are available
for 2010 and 2011, but probably fewer than ten new films
were made in each year, mostly in the lowest category of horror
trash.
It wasn’t always this way. In the 1960s and ’70s, Cambodian
films briefly filled cinemas and coffers, and the country had
a flourishing film industry. Perhaps it was not as big as that
of other Asian countries like Hong Kong or the Philippines,
but there was a national cinema that deserved the name and
whose works have a charm of their own that survives to this
day. The films of the “Golden Age”, as it’s nostalgically called
today, are remarkable for their exuberant imagination and
their ebullience.
In Cambodia, which had just become independent, directors
concentrated on the rich legacy of the country’s folklore and
sagas. In not quite a decade and a half, about 450 films were
produced – most of them now lost – before the Khmer Rouge
took power in 1975 and transformed the country into a Stone
Age concentration camp. Cambodia, including its film industry,
has still not recovered from this historical disaster. The
films made before the Khmer Rouge, when Cambodia’s relative
affluence and peace gave it the nickname “the Switzerland of
Asia”, are a fascinating example of postcolonial popular film
that still awaits its international rediscovery.
Davy Chou’s documentary film Le sommeil d’or is part of the
current rediscovery of the Cambodian film world of that time
and of the country’s popular culture in general. Today, young
Cambodians seeking ways to identify positively with their
homeland – rather than with the Khmer Rouge, AIDS, poverty,
and misery – think back nostalgically to this period in which,
for a short time, Cambodia was not only self-determined, but
also progressive and somehow “cool”. Davy Chou himself contributed
to this rediscovery with an exhibition and a film retrospective
about this time. His film profits from his personal
involvement in this process.
Birds of paradise and the “Golden Age” (1960–1975)
Cambodia was relatively late to develop a film industry of
its own. As long as Cambodia was a part of colonial Indochina,
only the French settlers (colons) made films in the country
– usually documentary films about their own activities. Only
around 1960 did Cambodian directors, who had next to no relevant
training, begin shooting their own films with the simplest
means. Som Sam Al was the first Cambodian to shoot a feature
film, in 1958. It was on 16-millimetre material, in black-andwhite,
and with no sound. Until the middle of the 1960s, when
the equipment needed to make “talkies” finally arrived in the
country, all Cambodian films were silent. As in neighbouring
Thailand, film narrators improvised the dialogues and in part
also sound effects and music while the film was being shown.
Sometimes they had to provide sound for the same film five
times a day. Some of these film narrators became stars themselves
– and drew audiences into the cinemas.
The French director Marcel Camus, whose Orfeu Negro was an
international success in 1959, greatly influenced the development
of the Cambodian film industry. He tried to repeat his
film’s recipe for success again a few years later in Cambodia:
amateur actors in front of exotic backdrops. L’oiseau de paradis (The Bird of Paradise), from 1963, tells a tragic love story between
an impoverished migrant labourer and a temple dancer.
None of Camus’ Cambodian actors had any acting experience.
But some of them, like Sak Sisbourng, Narie Hem, and Nop Nem,
became stars in Cambodia’s developing film industry.
The young Yvon Hem, who worked on the film as a production
assistant, liked shooting so much that he took a French correspondence
course to learn to be a filmmaker. Together with his
sister Narie, who had played the leading role in Camus’ film, he
founded his own production company, Baksey Thansour, which
means “Bird of Paradise”. The company produced some of the
best and most successful films of that time, and Yvon Hem was
one of its most professional and stylistically solid directors.
In the mid-1960s, directors began making melodramas and
comedies, but the great majority of films in this period were
based on the fairytales and sagas of the Khmer, set in a fantastic
past and often with roots in India and Java. Others are
based on Buddhist narratives, often the Jatakas, stories about
Buddha’s former incarnations. Many of these stories were
taught in school, so directors liked this material because it
ensured a large audience – namely, schoolchildren who didn’t
want to read the books. But that can’t be the only reason why
films like Hem’s Sovannah Hong (1968) and Sovan Pancha (1970)
became blockbusters. The wild stories full of surprising twists,
intrigues and adventures, ghosts, princes, and giants seem
to have appealed to an audience that went to the movies for
thrills and astonishment.
Stars like the former beauty queen Dy Saveth are said to have
made more than 100 films, which were sometimes shown for
months in Phnom Penh’s more than thirty cinemas. Today,
these films are regarded as the expression of a far-reaching
process of the “Khmerisation” of all artists in Cambodia. (The
country has a number of ethnic groups besides the Khmers.)
With the active support of Norodom Sihanouk, the former king
who had ruled Cambodia as head of state since independence
in 1953, the country experienced a brief period of economic
and cultural flourishing, which ended with the Khmer Rouge
takeover. Under Sihanouk, an ambitious modernisation program
was carried out, and at that time many Cambodians believed
their country would achieve the living standard of the
Western world in a few years.
Among Western fans of exotic pop music, the Cambodian rock
of this time enjoys cult status: grungy electric guitars accompany
ballads and rock songs that owe as much to Western pop
music as to the traditional Cambodian pop music. Songs by
stars like Sinn Sisamouth (who also wrote the music for many
films), Ros Sereysothea, and Pan Ron are still popular today in
Cambodia. The architect Vann Molivann developed architecture
in Cambodia that was based on the Modernism of a Le Corbusier
and the Bauhaus, but that adapted to local traditions
and climatic conditions. Among his best-known buildings are
the Olympic Stadium and the Royal University in Phnom Penh,
the national theatre, and two cinemas. These buildings were
an emblem of the modernity of the young Cambodian state.
His Majesty’s films
Norodom Sihanouk himself is still among the most productive
film directors in Asia. Before being deposed in a coup in 1970,
he shot eight feature films and a number of documentaries.
During his long exile and after his return to Cambodia in 1992,
he repeatedly worked on film projects. His Majesty’s films are usually melodramas that play in the country’s Western-oriented
upper class. But Sihanouk says they also aim to teach Cambodia’s
rural population, most of which to this day cannot read
or write, about Khmer history and traditions.
The cinematographically most interesting films from this period
are clearly those by the autodidact Ly Bun Yim. The two
films of his that are still extant, Sobbseth (Sobbseth, 1966) and
Puthisen Neang Konrey (12 Sisters, 1968), which he made in his
own studio on the arterial road Kampuchea Krom in Phnom
Penh, are drastically wild oriental fantasies full of violence
and wonders.
The films made at that time found an enthusiastic audience.
Many Cambodians who saw them at the time can still vivaciously
relate their stories in great detail. These films are archaic
cinema, often as primitive as the silent films of the era
before Griffith, with special effects reminiscent of Méliès. Despite
their technical limitations, some of the Cambodian films
of the 1960s were exported to other Southeast Asian countries,
including Thailand and Singapore.
Not all of these films are based on legends. Some of them are
set in the Cambodia of the 1960s, for example Pous Troung On
Tov (Hear My Wish, 1972). It is about a young woman from the
provinces who is forced into prostitution in an ultramodern
Phnom Penh and thereby earns so much money that she finally
buys her freedom, sets herself up as a boutique owner, and
lives the life of the rich and beautiful. Pel Del Trov Zum (A Time
to Cry, 1974), by the director Uong Kan Thuok, also shows an urbane,
Western-oriented high society that kills time with love
affairs and a life of luxury. That the film is set in the filmmaking
world shows the aura that the industry must have had for
the public at this time.
Many of the films from the 1970s convey a “dance on the volcano”
atmosphere. At this time, the Khmer Rouge had already
brought parts of Cambodia under their control and was slowly
but surely advancing on Phnom Penh. Film work in the provinces
sometimes had to be interrupted because of armed attacks.
At the end of 1974, the movie houses in Phnom Penh were
closed because the Khmer Rouge detonated bombs in public
meeting places. Cambodia’s film industry ceased production.
The Khmer Rouge: barbarism and an unfinished feature film
On 17 April 1975, the Khmer Rouge marched into the capital
and within a few days drove out the entire population. The
great majority of Cambodians were forced to work in collective
agriculture and digging canals. Many actors, directors,
musicians, other artists, and intellectuals – including Sinn Sisamouth,
Ros Sereysothea, Kong Sam Ourn, Ly Va, and Vichara
Dany – were among the approximately two million people murdered
by the Khmer Rouge.
Under the rule of the Khmer Rouge, almost the only films made
were short, propagandistic documentary films celebrating the
supposed achievements of the new rulers. Most of these films
are black-and-white, silent, and amateurish. Some of the technically
better films are said to have been shot by Chinese teams
– but both the Chinese and the Cambodians stubbornly deny
this.
A little-known fact is that Pol Pot, the murderous leader of the
Khmer Rouge, was working on a feature film when Vietnamese
troops drove him out of Phnom Penh in January 1979. Few details
are known about this film: apparently the dictator himself
wrote the script, which was shot on his instructions by a team in the mountains of Ratanakiri province. The film depicts
the guerrilla activities of the Khmer Rouge in the 1960s,
when they hid out in the jungles of this mountainous region
and built up their organization. The few scenes of the film that
still exist seem dilettantish. Shots in which members of ethnic
minorities shoot poisoned arrows at government troops are
reminiscent of early Tom Mix-style Westerns. Pol Pot’s interest
in making this film seems to have been to shed the light he desired
on his historical role. The Khmer Rouge later repeatedly
cited the lifestyle of the aboriginal population of Ratanakiri
as the inspiration for their political ideology.
Cambodian Cinema in the Present
After the Vietnamese had liberated or occupied Cambodia (depending
on one’s political perspective) in January 1979, initially
there was no film production in the country. Many of the
most talented filmmakers were either dead or living abroad,
and it would take years before Cambodian films could be shot
again. The Vietnamese banned the screening of Cambodian
films from the time before the Khmer Rouge, whether in order
to marginalise the Khmer culture or because these stories
chock full of ghosts, gods, and demons could not be reconciled
with the communist worldview.
Yvon Hem, who survived the dictatorship of the Khmer Rouge
as an agricultural worker, returned to Phnom Penh and opened
a photography studio. Using equipment that he put together
himself from old spare parts, he shot Sror Mori Anthakal (Shadow
of Darkness, 1987), the first feature film made after the
Khmer Rouge period. He narrated the fate of his family under
the reign of terror. In the following years, a few films were shot
and shown in the many cinemas that gradually opened again in
Phnom Penh. Under Vietnamese rule, most of the movies came
from the “socialist brother countries”, for example the Soviet
Union and Czechoslovakia. In 1989 there was even a Cambodian-
Czech co-production between the director Milan Muchna
and the Cambodian Ministry of Culture: Devet Kruhu Pekla (Nine
Circles of Hell), a love story about a Czech doctor and a Cambodian
actress, who are torn apart by the Khmer Rouge.
The short videoboom: no trace left
Around 1990, Cambodia was smitten by a peculiar “camcorder
revolution”. In just one year, an estimated 200 films are supposed
to have been shot with the first analogue video cameras
that appeared in the country. These films represent a completely
lost period of Cambodian cinema, since none of these
productions appears to have survived. (Of the films from the
“Golden Age”, about forty are still circulating on VCD or DVD,
and in the meantime some of the original films have reappeared,
as well.) The short video boom soon fell victim to its
own success: the production of the hurriedly shot melodramas
– which some who have seen these films compare to “Nollywood”,
the films from Nigeria – soon ceased.
In the 1990s, film production was brisk, but only a few films
from this time can be found today, either. At the same time,
films and soap operas from Thailand pushed onto the Cambodian
market and were powerful competition for the local filmmakers.
The Thai productions were very popular, because they
were made more professionally and with larger budgets than
the local productions. In 2000, the number of Cambodian productions
began to fall. But political unrest in 2003 swept Thai
films from Cambodia – to this day. A provincial newspaper from Siem Reap had quoted the Thai
actress Suvanant Kongying as stating that the vast historical
temple complex Angkor Wat belonged in reality to Thailand
and that the Cambodians were all worms. This statement
was a false translation of utterances the actress made in a talk
show, and Suvenant later denied ever having said anything of
the kind. But shortly after the report, a violent uprising broke
out in Phnom Penh. Spurred on by Prime Minister Hun Sen,
the rioting masses destroyed Thai shops and restaurants and
stormed the Thai Embassy. Although Hun Sen apologised to
the Thai government for the riots, there are indications that
his party manipulated the uprising to distract people from
internal problems. At the same time, the Cambodian government
forbade local television stations to broadcast Thai productions.
To fill the gap, Cambodian productions were in greater
demand again. As early as 2001, the young director Fai Sam
Ang had shot Kon pous keng kang (The Snake King’s Child), a
remake of Tea Lim Kun’s classic from 1968. Fai Sam Ang was
the most successful director in these years and shot films with
relatively large budgets, including a version of the classical
Khmer verse drama Tum Teavy (Tum and Teavy, 2003). The climax
of this short renaissance of Khmer cinema was Ne Sat Kror
Per (The Crocodile, 2005), shot by veteran director Mao Ayuth;
with a budget of US $100,000, it must be the most expensive
film ever made in Cambodia.
Apart from such successful local productions, the French-Cambodian
director Rithy Pan regularly shoots films that are shown
at international festivals. His debut feature film Neak sre (Rice
People, 1994) was shown at the 1994 Cannes Film Festival, and
S-21, la machine de mort Khmère rouge (S-21: The Khmer Rouge
Killing Machine, 2003) was even shown in some art house cinemas
in Germany. But its reception in Cambodia is very limited,
since none of Rithy Pan’s films have ever been officially shown
in movie houses there.
Last year, Chhay Bora’s Lost Loves (2010) and the documentary
film Enemies of the People (2011) were internationally shown.
Because of their theme, neither has yet appeared in a cinema
in Cambodia: the Khmer Rouge is still a taboo topic in the
country, because some high-ranking politicians, including
Prime Minister Hun Sen himself, were adherents of this movement.
But these two films, both shot for relatively little money
on digital video material, raise hopes that a Cambodia that,
economically and politically, appears to be slowly moving beyond
its terrible past could in the future produce films worth
seeing again.
Tilman Baumgärtel, January 2012

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