STOP10: 'Loung Preah Sdech Korn' by Mao Ayuth

Something cropped up in the research on this film that was more interesting that fact that it was potentially the most expensive film ever made in the history of Cambodia cinema, almost US$1 million in budget. News reports have surfaced about the erection of several new statues of Sdech Korn around Cambodia, all bearing a facial resemblance to Cambodian prime minister Hun Sen. And these statues have allegedly been commissioned by tycoons who wanted to get into the good books of Hun Sen, knowing Hun Sen's quasi-worship of Sdech Korn, the 39th Cambodian King in the history books, also the subject of this epic film named Loung Preah Sdech Korn by director Mao Ayuth.

Hun Sen's fascination with Sdech Korn has been well-documented. He funded research into the location of Sdech Korn's ancient capital, backed several tourism developments around the site, and financed as well as wrote the foreword for a book on Sdech Korn. To add that these, the National Bank of Cambodia issued commemorative coins modelled after the currency that Sdech Korn created - he created what was arguably Cambodia's first widely-used currency. Hun Sen has also often drew parallels between himself and Korn in his speeches.

It is therefore of no surprise that the film production basked in the establishment-driven support that was offered to the making of the film. A million-dollar budget aside, it was not short on resources and as the film appeared lavish and worthy of a period costumed epic. The director, Mao Ayuth himself, was the Secretary of State at the Ministry of Information and already an institution in the Cambodian filmmaking scene, being one of the most famous directors from the 90s, and the director of Crocodile Hunter, Cambodia’s most successful and popular movie since the end of the Khmer Rouge. Lastly, a film that reinstates Cambodian history, culture and values should have made it an easy sell to the authorities.

So what's the story?

In 1505, a king named Preah Srey Sokun Bot fell in love with Bopha, a beautiful woman who was living with her mother, father and a brother named Korn. The lady was promoted as concubine, while her brother Korn, played by champion bodybuilder and personal trainer Sophorn, was assigned the title of Loung Preah Sdech Korn. Following some ominous dreams the king had, coupled with dissatisfaction from palace officials, as well as warnings from fortune tellers who said the king will be overthrown by a man born in the year of the dragon like Korn, the king plotted to have Korn killed.

Upon hearing the plan to have him killed from his sister, Korn fled east but used the opportunity to raise an army to rebel against the king. In 1512, Korn marched back the capital and overthrew the king, ending the Chaktomuk era of Cambodia. He then ascended to the throne as the 39th king of Cambodia. One of the most significant things he introduced during his reign was the first ever Cambodian currency, the sloeung, a gold coin inscribed with a scaled dragon.

Amidst the bulk of contemporary Cambodian films at the CIFF, many with an independent voice, Loung Preah Sdech Korn finds itself at a funny spot, being somewhat authority-driven, with authority in many senses of the word - a national message, a film veteran, a link to a government ministry and adulation from country's number man-in-charge. But if parallels have been established between the lives and identity of both Sdech Korn and Hun Sen, there might just be something pretty ominous in this film?

Written by Jeremy Sing

Check out which other 9 films made our STOP10 list of Cambodian films from CIFF 2018. 
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