Out of all the art forms resurrected from the abyss of the Khmer Rouge period, the brief golden era of Cambodian cinema has perhaps been the most complicated to recapture. Out of an estimated 380 feature films released in a period of less than 15 years, only a few remain, many not on 16mm but crackling VCD or watery video, copied again and again.
As with those who lived through the Khmer Rouge, Cambodian film has seen incredible stories of survival. Much of it thanks to the work of cinephiles, students and amateur researchers –and what can’t be remade is still remembered, through music, homage and documentary.
This week Birds of Paradise, a painting exhibition by artist Kun Sotha in the foyer of the Chaktamuk theatre, recreates the classic movie posters of the period’s best-known features, in all their action-packed, technicolour glory. Shown as part of the Memory! International Film Heritage Festival, the exhibition is curated by French-Cambodian director Davy Chou, whose 2011 documentary Golden Slumbers awoke many memories of Cambodia’s pre-Khmer Rouge film industry and kicked off a youth-driven revival of 1960s and 70s cinephilia, with the formation of the filmmaking collective Kon Khmer Khoun Khmer.
“It’s a combination of films we’ve lost and ones we have,” says Chou of the show, nodding to a canvas showing actress Dy Saveth in the poster of her best-known film, wide-eyed under a dramatic head of brown serpents.
“The Snake Man is not lost. The filmmaker lives in Canada and has the print there. This was the biggest hit. For that film I asked all my friends, ‘do you have a poster?’ No one had it. I asked the filmmaker and his daughter and she said that they had the film poster in Thai, so it was translated into Khmer and recreated.”
Few film posters from the golden era survive. Most of the current recreations are from mass-produced lobby cards collected by fans or original movie posters from Thailand, where Cambodian films and their stars, dubbed into Thai, were hugely popular. No one seems sure as to who painted the original artworks, packed with dramatic mise-en-scenes, B-Grade glamour and screaming taglines.
Since 2010, another group of young film buffs, the Preah Sorya group, have enthusiastically dedicated themselves to researching and rediscovering golden era music and film. Their founder, 18-year-old Rin Chhoumvirak (Virak)- wrote the text for Birds of Paradise and earlier this year, with some financial help from a fellow film buff, flew to Bangkok to visit the Thailand Film Archive where, says archive director Chalida Uabumrungjit, there are two or three original film reels of Thai-released Cambodian films, as well as a small collection of pictures and posters.
“At that film archive I found magazines and maybe a few films. I felt wonderful,” Virak says. “I don’t work not for myself or my family, it’s for our national [culture].”
Last month he went on another mission, this time on the scent of a picture collection kept by a former movie projectionist in Ek Phnom, Battambang, and held onto through the Khmer Rouge.
Anxious for a find, Virak prayed “to the stars” – Vichara Dany and Kong Sam Oeun, the dashing leads whose faces once commanded billboard-sized installations over Phnom Penh’s movie theatres – that he would uncover some more of their lost world.
To his great surprise, the elderly projectionist presented him with a whole uncut reel of 16mm film.
“After the Khmer Rouge, whenever there was a village ceremony, they’d bring the film out and screen it,” he explains. “Ten years ago he retired. [The family] had even more films up until two years ago but they threw them out.”
The 16mm film was lying partly unspooled on a table inside when he visited.
“He gave the [remaining] film to me and I kept it at my house. I think it was made between 1967-68 because Kong Sam Oeun and Kim Nova are in it.
I was so sorry [the other film was destroyed] - why didn’t they keep it for me?” he says with anguish. “I feel this [remaining] film is my luck. I always pray to the stars: please help me!”
While the star actors of the ‘60s and ‘70s enthrall Virak, their deaths cast a sad shadow on the films. From the 11 movie poster paintings on display, Dy Saveth and Virak Dara were able to escape the regime. Others such as Chea Youthon, Sam Ouen, Nova and Dany, were killed and their films – of which there was usually only one copy – mostly destroyed.
“My heart holds films and the stars of the past – this is my interest and something that’s taken me to research. I want to know: Why did they die? How did they develop this filmmaking?” Virak says.
“There’s a whole story behind each film,” Chou says of the films in the Birds of Paradise show. One of his favourite of Kun Sotha’s paintings is the mystical drama Tro Peang Peay [The Sacred Pond, 1970], the first film to show lead actors naked, with a soundtrack featuring Sinn Sisamouth and Ros Sereysothea.
In contrast, the artwork for Ung Kanthouk’s lively 10,000 Regrets , with a jiving, trousered Vichara Dany, is more Elvis Presley than Angkor. The musical romance was set in contemporary times and included music by the Bee Gees.
After making Golden Slumbers Chou met Ung Kanthouk, who had left Cambodia and was living in France, and invited her to a screening of his film.
“She was so amazing – she was so talkative! I wish so much that I could have met her before so I could include her in the film. She said she was shy, but afterwards she couldn’t stop talking.”
Chou, the grandson of Cambodian director Vann Chan, became enamoured with the Kingdom’s lost cinema after watching movies sent to his family on VCD. In between films, a trailer for one of his grandfather’s films came on. Of the 30 films he made, only three survive.
In his essay, ‘Nine Tales of a Rediscovered Cinema’, reprinted for the Memory festival catalogue, Chou muses that probably the golden era’s greatest film is Ly Bun Yim’s Theorum of the Seahorse, and it has never been seen – by anyone. It was finished and ready to be screened when the events of April 1975 intervened.
Much of the current information on golden era cinema has been collected by Khmer cinephile turned blogger Huy Vathara, who migrated to France in 1980 and eventually created an online depository of everything he could find of Cambodian film – the site became so populated with clips, biography and music, it now has restricted access. Along with other online film lovers in the US, Huy has built up a huge amount of resources on Cambodian filmmaking, says Lim Sophorn, archivist at the Bophana Visual Resource Center.
It was Huy who reached out to Virak and Chou.
“We met, I was working in France and I had the idea of something to do on this topic. To be honest, I think he was a little disappointed: I hadn’t seen a single film, I was just interested in the stories of the films,” says Chou.
At Memory, one of the biggest crowd-pleasers to screen has been Ly Bun Yim’s 1965 hit Sobasith, a mythical tale with what was considered at the time to be staggering special effects.
It is the second time Virak has seen it – the first was with the director himself, after the teen rang him up for a school project and asked to interview him.
“He said OK and was very friendly about it – I was very happy. I started writing a book about Ly Bun Yim, but it’s not published,” he adds.
For the second screening, at Chaktomuk theatre, Virak will take his mother and grandmother along. They’re proud of his work, he says, though they aren’t great film buffs themselves. 1960s and 70s film has instilled a kind of national pride in him, he says.
“I want to show what I feel about film to other people. I want to write about film...and eventually I want to make films.”