At the height of her fame, movie actress Dy Saveth was stopped by a woman in Thailand, who, overhearing her Cambodian accent, wanted to ask the petite beauty wearing big 1970s-style sunglasses, about her favourite film personality.
“I love Dy Saveth,” the woman said conversationally, “but I haven’t seen her in anything lately. What’s she doing?”
The year was 1971 and Saveth was a star not just in Cambodia but across Southeast Asia, headlining cinema hits like the riotous horror The Snake King’s Wife and The Crocodile, as well as a number of the late
King Father Sihanouk’s films. In ten years, she had become one of the best-known faces of the ‘Golden Age of Khmer Cinema’ and, with husband Huoy Keng, was making and starring in films under her own production company, Sovann Kiri.
Like a scene from one of her films, Saveth slowly removed her sunglasses to reveal her face to the Thai woman.
“I said, ‘I am Dy Saveth’,” she says, re-telling the story with relish. “I was nearly crying.”
It would not be the first time Saveth would make a surprise grand re-entrance on an unsuspecting audience. One of the very few performing artists to survive the Khmer Rouge, after fleeing to France, Saveth’s return to her home country was a surprise to many, who assumed she had perished, alongside co-star Sin Sisamouth and actors Kong Som Oeun and Vichara Dany.
Now aged an incredibly youthful 69, the actress cuts a striking figure, with a wealth of emotion behind her elegant demeanor. Her colourful apartment, which she shares with her adopted 12-year-old daughter, two Chihuahuas and a talking bird, is crowded with memorabilia from her films. It is not difficult to place her as the exuberant lead in the Snake King’s Wife: one of many roles she admits she found difficult to watch herself play on screen.
When King Norodom Sihanouk asked her to act in his self-produced film Crepuscule (Twilight), she felt her already-rising fame creep up a notch. Her grandmother and her sisters had been dancers in the Royal Palace, but appearing alongside the King was a nerve-wracking proposal for a young actress.
“I was worried about it,” she says, “ I thought the King was huge and I didn’t know what to do, how to act… I always had to think about how to act. (But) from the beginning, he was just a normal guy. “He didn’t scare me. He knew that being King (was intimidating) so he (made an effort) to be normal.”
Growing up in Phnom Penh in the 1950s, hooked on foreign films, Saveth “never, ever” expected to have a film acting career. She made a reluctant entry into movies after winning Miss Cambodia at the age of 19, and her dreams of being an artist soon grew wings. Whereas the King, she tells me, had ambitions but was forever limited by his duties.
“He had talents in art and he used to tell me he wanted to be an artist, like in Hollywood – like an American movie director… but being a King he couldn’t do that. He loved to act, loved to dance like normal people, but he was limited to directing.”
At the time, a growth in local and foreign films contributed to the development of an incomparable era in Khmer cinema. Movie theatres like Phnom Penh’s magnificent Cinema Le Rex screened a steady stream of crowd-pleasers starring Dy Saveth and a bevy of charismatic stars, all embodying the youthful cosmopolitanism of 1960s and 70s Cambodia.
Film was fresh and contemporary, while in keeping with uniquely Khmer themes. In the weird and wonderful Snake Girl (1974), Saveth allows live snakes to slither suggestively over her body, while wild jazz music riffs over the scene. The film was one of several on the reptilian theme, after the internationally successful Snake King’s Daughter.
“I imagined this story with my husband (Huoy Keng). We tried to make something different and strange,” she says. Another director later tried to remake the film, but wasn’t willing to recreate the Medusa-like headdress, made with dozens of live baby snakes, that Saveth wore in her version of the Snake Girl.
“I thought that maybe I wasn’t good at performing but after a while I just listened to the director and followed their instructions,” she says of her earlier films. “After that I became more and more famous and (the films) were big hits… I was calm then (and not overwhelmed). I still didn’t think I was good enough. Why did so many people enjoy the films?”
The walls of her Phnom Penh apartment are crowded with hundreds of photos and old movie posters spanning the past four decades. Saveth surely by now understands her enduring popularity – but how does it feel to have a career defined by just over ten years of film acting?
The photos are not an altar to a career, she says, but a testament Khmer filmmaking as a whole.
“It’s evidence that I used to be an artist. If I didn’t have the pictures, I didn’t have proof that I was an artist at the time. When I was in France I never told anyone (about my career), because I had no proof… they would not have believed me,” she says.
When the Khmer Rouge took hold, Saveth was overseas, scouting for locations after US bombing made filming in Cambodia a much too dangerous activity. She fled to France with her two children, ending up in Nice, where she lived for the next 18 years.
“I took some pictures with me but not very many. I left thousands more at home in many boxes. They were completely gone. I rediscovered them through friends in Thailand, friends in Singapore, Hong Kong, everywhere and then Khmer friends, who had pictures saved here, whom I traced on Facebook.”
For years she learned what she could of Cambodia and the fate of her friends and family. Four of her siblings had perished.
“At first I kept my mind calm and tried my best to live in France and adopt the culture, and (settle into) the system, hoping that one day I’d come back to Cambodia,” she says.
“There was a small hope in my heart telling me I would be in Cambodia again.”
Fearing that everything she knew had been decimated, Saveth made her return to the country with trepidation.
Her first trip back was just to the border of Thailand, where she hired a tuk tuk and looked out over the mountains onto Cambodia, without crossing. Not long after, in 1985, she decided to return for two weeks only, donning a hat, glasses and a mask to avoid recognition, and rode a bike around Phnom Penh.
“When I stepped onto the land, I thought ‘now I’m in my homeland’. I decided to rent a house but I didn’t tell anyone so I could investigate how the people were, what the situation was here… I was shocked by all the landmine victims and the blind on the streets. It made me so sad.”
A year later, she returned again for a month, uncertain anyone would remember her from her film roles - and unsure whether she wanted to be recognised.
That changed when she came across a house fire in Phnom Penh. In a French-adapted mind-frame, she wondered why the fire brigade and police hadn’t arrived to help.
“But the only thing I could see were people, with buckets of water, throwing them at the house. I started shouting, ‘why don’t you call the police?’ When I was shouting, someone behind me said: ‘Dy Saveth?’”
I stood still and didn’t turn around and I thought, ‘who knows me? Who could only see me from behind but still recognise me?’ The man said. ‘Ms Saveth, when did you return to Cambodia?”
The stranger worked for Cambodia National Television and arranged for her to be interviewed on TV.
“After that, people knew I was alive. If he hadn’t met me, maybe I would still be in hiding!”
Nowadays the former leading lady holds something of a rare link to a golden past, teaching performance at the Royal University of Fine Arts and presenting to the next generation of filmmakers at events like the Kon Khmer Koun Khmer Film Camp.
“All my experience is from being a performing artist at the time, so the only thing I can do to help my country is share my experience with the younger generation, with my students,” she says.
To contact the reporter on this story: Rosa Ellen at [email protected]
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