When Variety film critic Richard Kuipers isn’t on the Asian film festival circuit or reviewing, he searches for rare Cambodian rock vinyl. For nine years he produced the beloved Australian TV program The Movie Show, on SBS, and curates a cult side-program of the Sydney International Film Festival called "Freak Me Out". Since 2004 the 49-year-old Australian has been visiting Cambodia searching for music, old movie theatres and is a special guest presenter at the Bophana Centre’s CineClub events. Rosa Ellen reports.
You recently presented a screening of Dawn of the Dead at CineClub — What is it with zombies?
I love going down to the CineClub at the Bophana Centre because I think it’s a fantastic initiative to have film culture and appreciation available to people in Phnom Penh for free on a Sunday afternoon. My great love is horror movies and probably my favourite film is Dawn of the Dead. That theme of supernatural experiences is prevalent [in every film culture] but as far as zombies go, they’re not that common in Asian cinema. The zombie genre that we know now grew out of Night of the Living Dead, which George A. Romero made in 1968. He wrote his own rules for zombies — in Haitian and West African culture the zombie is almost a benign creature that’s been raised from the dead by a witch doctor. Romero turned them into flesh eating maniacs and hey presto, a whole new genre was born.
What recent Cambodian films have you seen that have been improving the quality of Cambodian cinema?
I’ve seen a couple of films in the last few years that have raised the level of popular Cambodian cinema. There have been very few Cambodian fully fledged international quality films made — aside from the films that Rithy Panh makes. Vanished, which was made in 2009 by Khmer Mekong Films and directed by Tom Som, was very nicely produced, had a good script, engaging characters and the audience went bananas for it. I thought it had the potential to play in an international film festival that had a section dealing with ‘midnight movies’, horror or fantasy. The other one I saw at the third Cambodian Film Festival last year - was The Final Sleep, by Puth Por.
So, Thailand has a thriving film industry, what other Southeast Asian film industry is on the rise and why?
In this region the most exciting cinema is coming from the Philippines. They have a terrific initiative over there that the Philippines government started about 10 years ago. It’s a fully federally funded program called Cinemalaya, an event where nothing but Filipino films are screened. People like myself who represent film publications started to take notice of this event and write about the films.
As a critic, what do you need from a filmmaker, to be able to publish a review of a Cambodian film and get it noticed on the serious film festival circuit?
When I review a film for Variety, which is the world’s most important film publication, we require all the credits of the films — cast and credits, in English — or we can’t review it. That’s the sort of thing that local filmmakers here need to know. The film can then capitalise on the initial notice that it gets. When busy journalists, sales agents and marketers come calling, you need to be ready. The simple fact is the market is so overcrowded with product.
How has that affected film criticism?
There are simply a hell of a lot more film critics in the world than there were 10 years ago. I think this is a good thing, that’s freedom and democracy. In terms of writing for Variety, it means we have to turn our material out a lot faster than we used to. Sometimes we have to turn around a review within two or three hours of the end credits. When you’re approaching a film that has a lot of layers to it, that is complex. ‘Thinking time’ is really important. [You want to] consider the film properly before you commit your opinion to paper. Those first 100 words in a Variety review — while not the be all and end all — can in many circumstances play a big role in the immediate success of a film.
Have you ever had a run-in with a director of a film you’ve given a bad review?
I’ve been very lucky. In all the hundreds of reviews I’ve written I’ve only ever had one problem and that was with an Australian director, believe it or not. Someone I’d worked with many years ago, when both of us were young lads starting out in this business. He made a film that wasn’t very good in my opinion — and in the public’s opinion too — and he sent me an email saying, ‘Thank you, you’ve destroyed my life.’ When in fact I hadn’t destroyed his life. What he did was he made enough on international DVD sales to fund another film. The next film was much better and he’s gone on to make a number of highly successful films since.
For a long time Thai cinema has been concerned with myths and ghost stories, and so was Cambodia’s during its fabled Golden Era. What’s the real legacy of that Golden Era for filmmakers?
I think that there’s two sides: firstly, it’s an inspiration for young Cambodian filmmakers and producers to know that yes, this Golden Age happened. Once upon a time there was a thriving, profitable Cambodian industry, a real genuine industry. The few surviving members of that community are rightly held in such huge regard and so respected as being a living connection with that past. But the other side has to do with mythology. Most of these films have disappeared and what keeps this sense of the Cambodian Golden Age alive as a very tantalising and quite thrilling thing, is the fact that you can’t see the films. I think it’s a real possibility that if a lot more of the films were around and a lot more of them were seen this would diminish the strength of that mythology.