Almost every cinema in Phnom Penh that thrived in the ‘60s has now turned into something else. Bokor is a popular cafe, with the only link to its past being a bunch of karaoke screens. Kirirom is an upscale snooker joint, with a massage parlour upstairs.
Cinema Sorya on Street 63, and Cine Lux on Norodom Boulevard, are the only historic movie theatres to have survived, and now show mainly local or Thai horror flicks. It is perhaps not surprising that the first film produced in Cambodia after the Khmer Rouge era was a horror story about a young boy who finds out his mother is an Arb, a malevolent spirit with a female head and a body made of bloody entrails.
By going back to the very root of Khmer traditional popular legends, My Mother is Arb was a great success in Cambodia. Since the golden age, the Cambodian adoration for ghosts and old mythology has made horror films one of the favourite genres among moviegoers here.
Though Cine Lux was refurbished in 2004, everything has retained a decadent and washed-out appearance. Posters of local or Thai horror movies hang on the walls, in the corridor outside the entrance, and a small, old, plastic snacks-stall provides candy, bananas and chips.
The theatre is run down (some of the chairs are broken), but it all contributes to the “haunted house” atmosphere that makes it so special.
But the real new attraction in the city seems to be the multiplexes. The Cineplex opened in August on the 5th Floor of the Sorya Shopping Center, and Legend Cinema, opened in October on the 3rd floor of City Mall. They both screen 2D and 3D Hollywood movies, and young people here love them.
“We have over 1200 customers at weekends,” Phean Davy, the Legend Cinema customer representative manager said, “and the majority of them are students. Ninety per cent of young a people in Cambodia prefer foreign films. They all study English in school and this is a chance for them to practice the language while having a good time.”
At the 5D Cinema on Diamond Island, for only $2.50 patrons can enjoy a 15 minute experience with ghosts, animals and monsters in 3D, with fire effects, a shaking seat, splashes of water and fans (as wind generators) making the experience “5D”.
The room is small, painted blue, with an overwhelming atmosphere. But it seems to work when it comes to attract people of all ages for a short, intense, new and engaging experience.
Meta House was the first Cambodian art-media communication centre in town. It is devoted to screening local Khmer movies and documentaries about Khmer culture and history. With its intellectual and romantic atmosphere, this cinema/café is a popular meeting point for Khmer and foreign filmmakers and artists and a great place to indulge in conversations, with a glass of wine or a cold beer, before or after the screening.
Personal tip: Get there early. Seats are limited and you don’t want to end up on the cement bench. After 20 minutes it becomes unbearable
The Bophana Centre is called the White House of Phnom Penh by locals, after the building was renewed by a French architect and students from the Phnom Penh School of Architecture.
The centre is named after Bophana, a 25-year-old girl sent to S21 for love letters she wrote to her husband. She was tortured and forced to confess she was working as an agent of the enemy. But what the Khmer Rouge could not force her to do was to deny the love for her husband. The centre was named Bophana in her memory, and to spread a message of courage and love to young generations.
As a reaction to the death of the 1960s movie industry, people started to show a great interest in foreign productions. The Flicks has been able to fill this demand. In 2008 it was the first theatre to offer the latest high-quality blockbusters, in addition to documentaries, animations and good classics. With no seats but comfy couches and floor beds to relax on during the screening, the theatre offers an unusual experience.
But that’s not all. In the small, painted red hall, The Flicks sells ladies underwear. That’s right ladies: good quality underwear in Phnom Penh.