Short Film Review: Sound of the Night | Somleng Reatrey (2021)


Tok. Tok tok, tok. Tok, tok, tok, tok. A series of rhythmic acoustic beats opens Somleng Reatre, easing viewers into an eerily quiet night of a deserted Phnom Penh neighbourhood. The streets are lined mostly with low-rise shophouses displaying not only marks of time evident in discoloured concrete walls and dull balcony metal frames, but perhaps also signs of negligence to keep them in shape. The folding shutter doors of shop fronts are closed shut, leaving the dim lights from the upper storeys as sole indication of human habitation. The rapping of a small wooden stick on a bamboo bar reverberates through the still space. A noodle cart fitted to a motorbike arrives at an intersection. The rider, who also cooks and mans the cart, calls his teenage brother to get on the bike as they continue their evening round of selling noodles. 

Variations of this type of noodle cart can be found in many different parts of Southeast Asia, coming under the names such as tok tok mee and mỳ gõ. The rapping sound is its defining characteristic, serving as a way to announce that their noodle cart is near. But there are also other features which are often associated with this form of mobile food stall. It’s open mostly only at night, and the majority of the customers are from the lower economic class. For that reason, a bowl of noodles costs almost next to nothing - merely 1.50 SGD in the film. They deliver noodles to not only patrons ordering at the cart by the street side, but also to the doorstep of those living in higher storeys where the cart cannot reach. Despite trying to reach as many customers as they could, the brothers don’t seem to earn anywhere enough. Running the noodle cart is made even more challenging by hooligans who underpay. Violence lurks at every corner of their work, to the extent that the little brother has to bring along a knife when making deliveries. 

Noodle carts aren’t the sole thing taking place in Phnom Penh evenings, as pointed out by the film. KTV establishments are at their peaks at night, with hostesses in revealing clothes loitering in front to attract patrons. At some point in the night, the brothers park their cart outside one of such KTV outlets. The big brother serves noodles to some hostesses, but only to pass time before his estranged sister comes up to talk to him. The conversation shows no hints of love or affection, filled instead with big brother’s dogged judgements of the sister’s supposed dirty line of work and the blind pursuit of easy money at the expense of morality. Silenced by the verbal attacks, she’s left with no options besides leaving the people who no longer welcome her.

In the afternoon of the following day, little brother wakes up in a provisional shelter made out of corrugated metal walls, to the chiding by big brother. They prepare for the noodle stall, ride to a gravel riverside, and wait for the departure of the next ferry to the city centre. Little brother gazes towards the high-rise buildings across the river, possibly hoping to escape poverty and live in those apartments. The ferry’s imminent departure pulls him back to reality. As the brothers board the ferry with their noodle cart, another long evening awaits them. 

The merit of this short lies with its realist texture. The details about the noodle cart and KTV establishments ground the film in Cambodia’s contemporary economic situation, its aspirations, and how the development has unfolded. In the last 15 to 20 years, KTVs mushroom in Phnom Penh, often acting as a facade for prostitution activities. They are a considerable source of revenue, by both encouraging domestic spending and attracting foreign monetary flows via sex tourism. But they are at odds with the prevailing societal values of Cambodia. KTV hostesses are looked down upon and regarded as profession reeked of vice. Despite fully aware of society’s perception, many young Cambodian girls from destitute families still decide to enter this line of work because of its monetary appeal (1). 

Sadly, the film fails to deliver anything more than simply stating the conflict between economic aspiration and morality that Cambodia is grappling with. We don’t see any implications of these opposing forces on familial ties, besides big brother’s matter-of-fact hostile sentiment for the sister. The characters stop at being embodiment for social phenomena and entities just for the film to advance its main statement: big brother represents the slightly older generation who despite their poverty remain steadfast in their moral commitments; the sister is an archetype for any young Cambodian girl who leaves an impoverished upbringing in pursuit of easy money regardless of any moral consequences; little brother above all typifies the uncertainty that Cambodian youth has to wrestle with. With only a surface-level depiction of family dynamics and a lack of character development, the short could hardly keep viewers invested anything more than a problem plaguing Cambodia from a socioeconomic standpoint, devoid of any much-needed human touch.

We could see some internal struggle hidden in the sister character, especially when she utters “I’m not who you think I am.” It’s a shame that the film gives too little ground for the KTV hostess who, in my opinion, has so much more potential as a main character to explore the conflict of economic aspirations and morality at a much more personal level. That could also open up opportunities to interrogate the inherently abstract and ambiguous nature of morality, rather than presenting it as absolute and unquestionable like how the short presumes. When the issues at stake are very much sanitised, the film manages to only bring attention to Cambodia’s national concerns without offering any layer of sentimental depth beyond what can be read from news coverage.

- Dan Tran

Endnote:
(1) https://www.phnompenhpost.com/columns/karaoke-girls’-sad-song

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