STOP10: 10 Cambodian flavours at the 8th Cambodian International Film Festival

Still from 'First They Killed My Father'

Almost everything leads back to the Khmer Rouge in recent Cambodian cinema. Almost like a birthmark that never goes away, it remains an overriding narrative that is still trying to find its resolution. But judging from the plump offering of Cambodian films at the recent 8th Cambodia International Film Festival (CIFF) (5-11 March), filmmakers have found distinguished voices to tell these stories with. 

Some voices reverberate with irony, like documentary Hidden Photos, which highlight the crassness of cashing in on genocide-tourism. Some voices tell it like it is, like one of the world's most famous Cambodian (and she does have a Cambodian passport), Angeline Jolie, with First They Killed My Father. Some tell it with urgency like Until They're Gone, a film on eradicating landmines. Some tell it with a tune of hope like Surviving Bokator, about a genocide survivor who wants to rejuvenate the ancient Cambodian martial art of Bokator, which looked a little 'King Fu'.

Khmer Rouge aside, the CIFF has put forth a rich platter of Cambodian films that explore the Cambodian identity from a plethora of lenses, including the historical, the romantic, the nostalgic, the cultural, the artistic and the pedestrian. Only in its 8th year, the CIFF has matured quickly into a richly-layered and relevant film festival. A colourful basket of world cinema and a thoughtful selection of contemporary Cambodia films aside, the festival also paid tribute to iconic film figures like Cambodian director Ly Bun Yim, whose films headlined Cambodian cinema of the 50s-60s golden age; as well as iconic Thai actor Vithaya Pansringram, who appeared opposite Ryan Gosling in Only God Forgives.

For STOP10, we picked 10 distinctively different Cambodian films from the CIFF and marveled like a tourist at the extremes each film took us to. Between guerilla-green fatigues to gold embroidery on royal robes, we hope these films will find their ways to your neighbourhood or even flat-screen TV soon.


12 Sisters (Puthisen Neang Kong Rey) (1968)
Ly Bun Yim

12 Sisters is a landmark film in Cambodia, being the film that propelled the rise of the Cambodian film industry before the Khmer Rouge. Directed by the iconic director Ly Bun Yim, who had a retrospective at the 8th CIFF, the film was one of the first films shot on 35mm and the first film that featured never-before-seen special effects on Cambodian screen, such as a flying Pegasus, an earthquake and the gouging out of eyes. Made in 1968, these special effects seem even more of a curiosity today. Such bizzare scenes will make more sense when you hear the even more bizzare fairytale about 12 sisters who escape their human-eating mother and marry a king, but are later banished into a cave and blinded in a scene of kitschy violence. Their hopes of revenge rest on the son of one of the sisters. For many years, nobody could find a copy of this film in decent condition. So the long-awaited HD screening of the film last week at the CIFF must have been a moment to remember.  

Read more about the film and where you could possibly watch it here.

Inside the Belly of a Dragon (2016)
Ian Wiggins

A Western clown on a road trip in an exotic Eastern land, always in costume, a vermillion tin soldier jacket and oversized clown boots. A dash of humour, a gush of warm fuzziness, a glimmer of hope and a tinge of bittersweetness is what you will receive as you follow Hugh W Brown on his road trip in Cambodia. Hugh W Brown, a Northern Irish clown is disenchanted with his life as a performer, but this changes as he takes in the glorious landscapes, makes friends with the local communities, and even does a little cultural exchange with the artists and individuals who live within the villages. His journey reaches a high point when he finally finds 'The Dragon', a limestone mountain. As a befitting end to his travel and the film, he holds a concert within the mountain and puts together an East-meets-West showcase of arts and a testament of friendship.

Read more about the film here.

Hidden Photos (2016)
Davide Grotta

This documentary starts with an arresting proposition - that there are only two main reasons why people would want to come to Cambodia as tourists, to visit the Angkor Wat, or to be a genocide tourist. Enter Nhem En. He was a photographer enrolled in the Khmer Rouge regime, who took more than 14.000 mugshots of the Tuol Sleng prison victims. Today, he is unabashedly cashing in on the aforesaid genocide tourism. Kim Hak, a young and talented Cambodian photographer who is looking to capture images of a new Cambodia provides a counterpoint to Nhem En. Which Cambodia is more relevant today? Hidden Photos by Davide Grotta won the Best Documentary Award in the The Maysles’ Brothers Competition in the 2017 Belfast Film Festival.

Read more about the film and where you could possibly watch it here.

A Life Like This (2017)
Isaiah Tour

From the comforts of his home in Papatoetoe, New Zealand, Isaiah Tour, a creative content producer with Auckland media group MediaWorks, traces his roots back to Cambodia where he own father Huat originated. Over an intimate conversation with Huat, Isaiah learns about how his father escaped death during the Khmer Rouge and brought his grandmother Jou Ma to New Zealand. In one particularly chilling account, Huat described how he could not board the same jeep as his boss bound for the border, due to lack of space. So he had to walk. He later learnt everyone on board the jeep was killed at the border. Then there is also the inspiring part about how Huat rebuilt his life in New Zealand. While refugee stories are almost a dime a dozen, the father-son dynamics are interesting to watch in this one. Huat has almost never opened up this chapter of his book to Isaiah or to the world at such lengths.

Read more about the film and where you could watch it here.

The Path (Le Chemin) (2017)
Jeanne Labrune

Adapted from La Fiancée du Roi, a book written by a french author Michel Huriet, The Path tells the story of French girl, Camilles encounter with Sambath, a Çambodian man. Camille has joined a Catholic mission in Cambodia, with the intention of taking her vows there. Each morning, she walks through the ruins of Angkor Wat and crosses paths with Sambath. What we get is more than romance, but also a rather spiritual experience. At the same time, the film is also a love letter to the Cambodian people and culture and a chance to appreciate its history, including the dark chapters. Director Jeanne Labrune is an Oscar-nominated French filmmaker who has made 13 films since 1978 including Vatel, Sans Un Cri and Tomorrow’s Another Day.

Read more about the film and where you could possibly watch it here.

First They Killed My Father (2017)
Angelina Jolie

Enough has been heard about this directorial labour of love from Angelina Jolie. While it rode on her fame as a Hollywood actress, the film has earned its own stripes judging from the generally positive reviews it has been getting from the critics circle. Suspicions about cultural appropriation, getting Hollywood treatment or even a sense of white-saviour hood were aplenty but the film proved to be a sensitive portrayal of the Khmer Rouge, balancing numerous sensitivities and a unique window into troubled times through a different lens - the eyes of a little girl. Based on an autobiographical non-fiction book by Loung Ung, who also wrote the screenplay, the film tells the story of Ung who lived through Pol Pot's regime and got enlisted as a child soldier, while her six siblings were sent to labour camps. This gripping tale of survival had a Netflix release last year in September and has found its own life on the red carpets worldwide. Glad it came home last week at the CIFF.
Read more about the film and where you could possibly watch it here.

Loung preah sdech korn (2017)
Mao Ayuth

If you are looking for a chance to connect with Cambodian history, culture and identity, this is one film to watch. The filmmaker left no stone unturned in the making of this exquisite epic. In fact, the filmmaker Mao Ayuth is quite a household name, especially in the 90s, having made Crocodile Hunter, a film with hall-of-fame status. Loung Preah Sdech Korn is a historical drama about in-court fighting that erupted into a war and the overthrowing of a king. Set in 1505,  Loung Preah Sdech Korn is actually the name of title given to Korn, the brother of a lady whom the king falls in love in. Gossips and bad-mouthing by palace officials led to an evil plan to kill Korn by the king. Loung Preah Sdech Korn survives this and wins a war against the king, emerging as the 39th king in Cambodian history.  

Read more about the film here.

Until They’re Gone (2017)
Christopher Lockett

Bill Morse, a volunteer deminer, who got out of cushy retirement in California to work in mine-removal in Siem Reap with his wife Jill Morse, had this to say in the film Úntil They re Gone about landmines: "People looking for landmines don't get hurt by them. It's the people who aren't looking for them who get hurt or killed." And many have had fateful experiences with landmines in Cambodia. This documentary on the Morse couple, puts the spotlight on the ongoing landmine issue in Cambodia and possibly around the world, which they feel is not getting enough attention. Here is a chilling fact, one person gets maimed by landmines every 22 minutes around the world. In the film, we are also introduced to Aki Ra, a former Khmer Rouge child soldier, who tried to manually remove landmines using just a stick and pliers. His DIY landmine removal operation was later shut down by the government, only to be injected with a new lease of life when Bill and Jill came into the picture and provided him with certified training and funds.

Read more about the film here.

Surviving Bokator (2018)
Mark J. Boschler

During the Khmer Rouge, the following groups of people were not so kindly looked upon and and suffered the heaviest blows from the regime - engineers, intellectuals, teachers and….. traditional arts practitioners. Bokator is an ancient Cambodian martial art form and you can actually see its techniques carved on the walls of the Angkor temples. Suppressed during the regime, this martial arts form found a renaissance post-war and one war survivor, San Kim Sean, was determined to bring it back to its former glory and pass it on to the next generation. He crossed paths with filmmaker Mark Bochsler, who was working on a martial arts segment for an experimental short film in Cambodia and a perfect marriage was forged to illuminate Bokator once more.

Read more about the film here.

The Witch (2018)
Huy Yaleng

Huy is certainly a name to watch in the Cambodian film industry, having made Vikalcharek (Psychotic) in 2016, which played in numerous screens across Phnom Penh and other provinces, and this year, another hit in the form of horror flick The Witch or Thmob, which opened across the country on 25 January. A highly passionate actor-director, Huy has worn both hats in Vikalcharek and The Witch. Based on a Khmer folk tale, The Witch tells the story of Raj, a tycoon in the Longvek era (15th century), lives a peaceful life with his pregnant wife, Tep Leak until one day, he gets wounded and wakes up to a world turned upside down. His uncontrollable reaction to the situation leads his brother-in-law, Tep Pong, to accuse him of witchcraft. The rest is mayhem.

Read more about the film here.

Written by Jeremy Sing
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