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Exploring the faded temples to Cambodia’s silver screen idols

During the cinema’s transformation from a night club. The old emblem can still be seen.  PHOTO SUPPLIED
During the cinema’s transformation from a night club. The old emblem can still be seen. PHOTO SUPPLIED

Exploring the faded temples to Cambodia’s silver screen idols

In the years between 1960 and 1975, some 450 Cambodian films were produced. Phnom Penh was home to around 30 cinemas. Most of them fell into ruin, or were converted, but one has just re-opened in only a slightly different capacity. Poppy McPherson reports.

It was a time when giants walked the earth. Horses flew and women grew snakes from the tops of their heads. In Cambodian cinema of the 1960s and 70s, anything was possible – so long as it was magical.


Once upon a time, there were 30 cinemas in Phnom Penh: smoke-filled auditoriums where crowds laughed, cried and chattered back to the characters on screen. Most are gone now, replaced with snooker halls or karaoke bars or simply demolished.

But one, the Cine Hawaii, is making an unlikely comeback as part of a million-dollar hotel and restaurant development.

One of a cluster of cinemas built from the 1930s onward, Cine Hawaii mostly showed popular Chinese-language films. Cambodians translated live over the microphone. Good characters usually had deep voices, while the villains spoke in falsetto.

Even as communist forces closed in on the city in the early 1970s, the cinemas kept their doors open. Sporadic attacks – a grenade claimed lives at the Lux on Norodom Boulevard – kept some moviegoers away.

But the cinemas were mostly full, until suddenly they were empty. When the Khmer Rouge captured and evacuated the capital, they closed the theatres and all but a few of the film reels fell into decay.

Cine Hawaii survived, sort of. In the fraught 1980s, when the country was still in civil war, the place was turned into a nightclub. Young people danced on a stage decorated with an old backdrop.

Then the theatre was abandoned again until, two years ago, new owners, wealthy Cambodians who lived in Germany, decided to give the empty space a new lease of life.

The Street 130 restaurant as it stands today.
The Street 130 restaurant as it stands today. Charlotte Pert

Having lived on as a night club, the old new cinema, now called Phkar Romyool, is doubling as a dine-while-you-watch theatre. The only original feature that remains after renovations is a floral emblem above the space where the screen stood. Tables and chairs face a blank white canvas onto which films are projected after dinner. Everything is open to the sky – an extendable roof can be closed when the rain comes.

“Guests can sit under the stars,” said Michael Scholten, a German friend of the owner who serves as the informal public relations officer for the restaurant, part of Le Palais des Anges Boutique Hotel.

The news has prompted some excitement among members of a young generation of cinephiles who are currently witnessing a high point in Cambodian cinema, after Rithy Panh’s The Missing Picture secured the country’s first Oscar nomination in the foreign language category last year.

The re-opening of Cine Hawaii has already attracted the attention of enthusiasts. “I feel like I’m being transported to the 60s,” one wide-eyed young student said last week as he explored the building.

Interest in what is known as ‘the golden age’ has grown after a series of films, such as the upcoming documentary Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten on 1960s Cambodian rock and feature film The Last Reel starring 60s actress Dy Saveth, addressed the period. In 2012, French-Cambodian filmmaker Davy Chou’s Golden Slumbers explored the fate of the cinemas and actors.

The development of Cine Hawaii was news to Chou, who once lived close to the cinema turned nightclub.

The Hemakcheat was once one of Phnom Penh’s most popular theatres. Today, it is a slum.
The Hemakcheat was once one of Phnom Penh’s most popular theatres. Today, it is a slum. Charlotte Pert

“I loved the idea [of the nightclub]. Okay, it’s changing but they keep the origins,” the young director said over a bowl of noodles in the Phnom Penh cafe where he likes to write.

Chou, whose grandfather was Van Chann, a leading film producer, has compiled an extensive catalogue of the old cinemas which may be the most complete available.

Many of the re-invented cinemas are still places where young people can go to enjoy themselves with friends, Chou said – though some are more joyful than others.

The Capitol Theatre is now a restaurant and snooker hall. The chatter and smoky air remain as well as distinctive triangular roofing in the pattern of Cambodia’s most famous architect.

“People used to say that the Capitol was designed by Vann Molyvann, but it’s not actually,” said Chou.

“It was designed by another architect. Then there was a fire and it burned all the part on the top, and Vann Molyvann redesigned [the theatre], so you can really see his style.”

Other theatres became karaoke clubs.

Meas Sopheap, 87, said she used to be a dancer. She lives inside the Hemakcheat.
Meas Sopheap, 87, said she used to be a dancer. She lives inside the Hemakcheat. Charlotte Pert

“Of course, it’s very sad and depressing that a cinema becomes a karaoke, [with] exploitation of the workers there, the girls,” Chou said.

“But I still say something that – maybe it’s a romantic approach, an idealistic approach – but the spirit of the characters in the film [remains].

“In the film that has some sad stories and the karaoke girls who have the sad stories and they are kind of the ghosts haunting the place.”

The most haunted of the old cinemas is undoubtedly the Hemakcheat. A towering example of New Khmer architecture, the Asian answer to Bauhaus pioneered by Molyvann, the building still stands on Street 130, a little way down from Cine Hawaii.

Managed by the filmmaker Ly Bun Yim, it was once one of the city’s most popular venues, screening films like The White Elephant King by Tea Lim Koun.

Now it is one of the city’s worst slums. Hundreds of families live on five makeshift floors. Inside, the darkness is complete, a few holes in the walls the only cracks of natural light. Hundreds of bats hang from the ceiling. They screech constantly, and swoop low over the homes. Dirty water drips from the highest floors. Glistening puddles of raw sewage and mounds of trash give off a putrid odour.

The interior of the Capitol Theatre in Daun Penh district. Some of the original roofing remains.
The interior of the Capitol Theatre in Daun Penh district. Some of the original roofing remains. Charlotte Pert

“I keep the lights on 24 hours a day,” said Chy Va, a 35-year-old mother of two, who shares a two-by-three-metre straw home on the ground floor of the building. Like many of the residents, she has lived there since childhood.

A few slippery steps up a frail staircase, 87-year-old Meas Sopheap told her story. Before the communist regime she was a dancer, she said. She was a star of lakhorn, a type of traditional Cambodian dance, and pictures of her face were found at theatres around town. She knew the Hemakcheat, as someone who worked there was a friend.

“Before the Khmer Rouge, someone tried to take me to the US, but I didn’t want to leave my family,” she said, adding that she was also invited by the municipality to teach lakhorn. Now her face bears the scars of a ravaging skin disease, and she begs for money to buy medicine.

“I was a teacher at that time, and now I have nothing, because the cinema has gone and the people have gone so I am left with no hope,” she said.

The roof of Capitol Theatre was designed by Molyvann.
The roof of Capitol Theatre was designed by Molyvann. Charlotte Pert

A few months ago, a film was screened in the Hemakcheat by one of Chou’s media students, who worked on a short documentary about the building. While he originally intended to show Golden Slumbers there, the plan never materialised.

Of the old cinemas, only the Lux still operates. Rental is expensive. Chou was charged $600 for a half-day, he said.

“There are not a lot of theatres you can do something in because they are always owned by people,” he added.

Not all filmmakers are attached to the old buildings. Mao Ayuth is best known as the director of Ne Sat Kror Per, or The Crocodile, one of the most expensive movies in Cambodian history with a budget of $100,000.

He also operated the Vimean Tep cinema, which was damaged during the Khmer Rouge but restored during the 1980s when Ayuth was at the forefront of recreating the film industry. Little trace remains of the building now, but he is not sentimental about it. After all, there are new cinemas: Legend, in City Mall and Toul Kork, and Platinum Cineplex in Sorya Shopping Centre.

The Hemakcheat features in Golden Slumbers.  CHARLOTTE PERT
The Hemakcheat features in Golden Slumbers. CHARLOTTE PERT

“The techniques are modern and mostly imported from other countries. It’s very modern right now – you can play 3D films,” Ayuth said in his office at the Ministry of Information, where he works as a secretary of state.

On the walls of his office hang maps of the world, with circles drawn around the countries where there is coverage of National Television Kampuchea, where he was once general director. There is also a portrait of Prime Minister Hun Sen in his youth. On his desk there is a copy of Rithy Panh’s autobiography, The Elimination.

Ayuth made his first film in the 1970s. It was one of the last to be made before the Khmer Rouge takeover. He remembers going to the Cine Hawaii – only if he read in that morning’s newspaper that there would be a good film there.

After surviving the regime, he and his former teacher established the Department of Cinema and reopened around seven or eight of the theatres with the help of some 30 hired staff.

Laughing, he remembered how there was no money to pay the employees.

“For the staff’s salary we gave only rice, one packet, or rice, sometimes two packets,” he said.

Mao Ayuth is a veteran filmmaker.
Mao Ayuth is a veteran filmmaker. Charlotte Pert

Now 71, he is keenly watching the new generation of filmmakers.

“The writers could not compare to the old movies,” he mused.

While he still writes scripts, his pace has slowed since his health started to decline.

“I just do a bit a day, a bit a day,” he said, and started to rifle through the stack of papers on his desk.

“Synopsis,” he announced, picking up a green plastic folder labeled “Jealous Diamond”.

“I have many stories I want to write about and this is one of the stories,” he said.

The plot revolves around a magic diamond that makes the wearer irresistible, making his or her lover mad with jealousy.

In his dreams, Ayuth finishes the story and holds a premiere in Phnom Penh with the old actors. One day it will be screened, he promised. Will it show in the Cine Hawaii? Stranger things have happened.

Additional reporting by Vandy Muong.


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