Film Review: The Last Reel (2014)

Everyone loves a film set within a cinema. It has a kind of narrative double entendre. In framing a story within a layered construct like this, it seems to be echoing something back at us the audience. The Last Reel by Kulikar Sotho is a film about dealing with the lingering shadows of the Khmer Rouge lurking within an unfinished period film and an abandoned cinema.

The Khmer Rouge is what the Marcos’ Martial Law to Filipino films and what the Cultural Revolution to Chinese films. It has cast an wide eclipse on Cambodian culture that most Cambodian films make references to it. This film spins a tale of love and memories around a cinema and an old film and the entangled fortunes of characters pre and post Khmer Rouge. Sophoun is a young student who is feeling the heat from her oppressive parents. He father, Colonel Bora, gets mad at her for coming home late and her mother, Srey, has a special ‘rulebook for girls’ for her. But eventually, nothing short of a Coronavirus outbreak would keep her at home. And she runs away and finds solace in a decrepit, crumbling, old cinema.

Taking on the ‘romance of the projectionist’ trope reminiscent of ‘Cinema Paradiso’ by Giuseppe Tornatore, this film is centred around a friendship between Sophoun and Vichea, the cinema owner. They evolve from unlikely friends to collaborators. But in the end, there is also betrayal and coming to terms with the truth. It all began when Sophoun chances upon the test screening of The Long Way Home, a period, costumed romance played by a beautiful actress, whom Sophoun subsequently realises was *spoiler alert* her own mother. However the film’s ending was missing from the existing film reels and something in the stars told Sophoun that she could be the one to fill in the gap, not least because she bore a striking resemblance to the leading actress in the film.

Off she goes trying to pull a village together for the production with Vichea resuming his role as the director, her friend Veasna as a key actor, her colleague professor as the cinematographer and his own contacts as the crew. Sophoun, in a sort narrative contrivance, casts herself in the role of the princess, who seemed to be played by the same actress. Running in parallel is the ruckus Sophoun’s military officer father has created at home in a fit of anger at Sophoun’s disappearance, not so much because he was concerned for her safety but more because the family was about to arrange a marriage for her. Teetering on the edge between escapism in her filmmaking endeavours and the danger in falling into a marriage trap, the sense of dilemma lends an urgency to an otherwise contrived plot.

Perhaps in the attempt to marry too many elements into the film, The Last Reel suffers a little from contrivance. From having an ex-Khmer Rouge general for a dad to a mother trying to hide her glorious past as an actress to a cinema that served as a shelter from civil war, to Sophoun being a mirror image her onscreen muse in ‘The Long Way Home’, the film has all the hallmarks of a delicious TV soap opera, but perhaps a tad too many serendipitous encounters for a film. The film tries to evoke a sense of nostalgia with the hazy projection of The Long Way Home but the somewhat ‘digital video’ quality of the footage takes away a bit of the mystery around the film. Also, the idea of pulling together of a rag-tag team of amateurs for the cast and crew, supposedly friends of the professor, required from us the audience a fair amount of suspension of disbelief for us to keep pace with the story. Towards the end when we see Sophoun’s mother Srey on board the production, picking up the role she left behind, dressed in royal finery fit for a young princess, it took a while to digest the somewhat awkward visual.

Thankfully, what saved the film in the end is its commitment to completing the character arcs of the different people and a little twist in the plot. While contrived, the film manages to avoid cliches. One potential agony we were certainly spared was the repercussion of Sophoun avoiding the arranged marriage. One that could be predictably violent and hysterical. Sophoun’s father is also seen in a surprise moment of remorse, which provided a much needed break from his one-note stormy persona. Khmer Rouge aside, the film also gains added contextual relevance towards the end when we are reminded Cambodia once had a golden age of cinema and this film is a love letter to it.

The film was Cambodia's official entry for Best Foreign Language Film at the 88th Oscars and is available online for free till 30 April. Click here to watch.
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