The man behind Cambodia’s first-ever blockbuster film, a maverick filmmaker who intends to set up the Kingdom’s answer to Hollywood in Kirirom, claims a first-ever decision to restrict screenings to viewers aged over 15 is costing the film nearly half its audience.
Sbek Gong (Invincible Skin), which had its premiere on August 14, is a violent but gag-filled action-comedy involving a love triangle, black magic, reincarnation, a little necrophilia and lots and lots of explosions.
It’s believed to be the highest-budgeted Cambodian film ever, with a claimed cost of $680,000, and reportedly broke box office records by taking $180,000 in its first 11 days.
It’s also the first film to be classified under a new film ratings system being introduced by the Ministry of Culture, which found Sbek Gong was unsuitable for children under 15 because of its realistic violence and “sexy scenes”, including the attempted rape of a corpse.
“Before, when the film has violence or sex scenes, the ministry asked the producers to cut those scenes and the producers weren’t happy with that, so we created this rating system,” said Sin Chanchaya, director of the ministry’s Film Department.
Chanchaya denied ongoing rumours that Sbek Gong was restricted simply because the producer refused pay a sufficient bribe.
“We planned to have a ratings system many years ago,” he said.
Sbek Gong’s producer, writer and director, Pol Vibo, said monitoring of cinemas had shown whole families were choosing not to see the film when their children were turned away, hitting ticket sales by an estimated 40 per cent.
Vibo said the restriction was unnecessary, because the attempted necrophilia was a “very good educational scene”.
“The guy, after the girl dies, he says: ‘I love you so much, dead or alive, I will have you’,” he said.
“But when he starts kissing her, the sky turns dark and lightning kills him right away. So what we are trying to say is that this is an immoral thing that people shouldn’t do.”
Chhay Bora, who made Cambodia’s first entry to the Oscars in almost two decades, Lost Loves, and more recently 3.50, which has so far been refused release by the Ministry of Culture, said the government needed to set out clear rules for filmmakers.
“If they set out the rules for rating, then everyone can follow the rules,” Bora said, adding that he would be happy to have 3.50 age restricted if necessary.
Touch Yinmony, a film lecturer at the Royal University of Phnom Penh’s Department of Media and Communication, said he did not agree with censorship, but said filmmakers also had a responsibility not to harm society and include gratuitous sex and violence in their films.
“Many times, Cambodian filmmakers just do it to attract attention,” he said.
“In art, you cannot always avoid having a sex scene, but they should be there to tell the story, not sell the story.”
Sbek Gong is Vibo’s debut picture. Before founding the production company Angkor Pictures, he was the deputy director general of the television station CTN for 10 years.
He said much of the budget, which he funded himself with a small group of minority investors, went toward special effects, such as a fight scene with a computer-generated lion that took four months to complete.
The marketing campaign included a press conference to which the stars were brought in a motorcade of hired Rolls Royces and Bentleys and a glitzy premiere at TK Avenue.
Vibo estimated that after tax and the cinemas’ cut, he would get a return on his investment of less than $150,000.
However, he added that Thailand’s Major Cineplex had agreed to put the film on five screens in Bangkok from October 23 and, if it does well there, it could be sold to other international markets for exhibition as well.
Vibo added that he planned to take his fiscal figures to the government and argue that the industry needed tax breaks and less regulation.
Meanwhile, he said, he was already planning his next film, Stupid Hunter, about a rich city dweller who heads out into the wilderness to hunt, which would have an even bigger budget of $750,000.
He has also already bought 50 hectares of land out near Kirirom National Park where he wants to set up Cambodia’s answer to Hollywood.
“One movie, we will build some things that will be left for the next one, and the next one will build on that,” he said.
“Project by project, we will [accumulate] everything, so the later projects don’t have to build it, they just rent it.”