WITH an expert hand, Me Moeun tidies her grey hair. Her eyes shine with pride as
she raises her Khmer "Oscar" for being the best actress of 1994. She musters
airs and graces quickly and easily; a practised lift of her brows pulls up a gentle,
genuine smile. She is ready for the photograph.
At 81 years old, the oldest actress in town knows the pose.
"I received this cup from [Minister of Culture] Nouth Narang two years ago,"
she says. "Every one admires my work."
Moeun has specialized in playing "mother" roles since she began acting
"She is like the grand-mother of the Khmer society," said Mao Ayuth, director
of TVK, the national television program. "She played in lots of films, good
and bad. Most of them are good."
Moeun herself does not really remember in how many films she acted. "Maybe 300,
" she says rocking her head, "but you know, I was able to play in any kind
of film. When I needed money, I would play with any kind of company."
Moeun, born in Thailand of a Thai father and a Lao mother, said: "My mother
was a dancer. When I was a kid, I looked at her performances and imitated her,"
moving her hands in traditional, graceful sweeps. "I learned by looking at her
when I was four or five years old."
When Moeun turned 14, King Sisowath Monivong asked her mother to teach the Royal
"We would not dare stay overnight at the Royal Palace because we were afraid
that the King would make love to us," says Moeun, prompting laughter among the
young audience listening in raptures to her story.
In 1930, a year after arriving in Phnom Penh, Moeun's mother returned to Thailand
to tend her sick husband. "My mother contracted the plague and died before my
father," said Moeun. "The King asked me to stay and teach as I knew all
the skills from my mother."
Moeun spent six years in the Palace teaching the Royal dancers. She left the Palace
"because of internal family problems", not wanting to be more precise,
and joined the stage.
When she started, Moeun did not earn much. She was forced to work in the marketplace
and only later started in film.
"I love [film] better even if it is more complicated. It is very quick and there
is always a new story you have to act. In theater, you always perform the same stories,"
Though as a girl she was afraid of King Monivong, she held his grandson - King Norodom
Sihanouk - whom she met years later much more fondly. "I acted in three films
by [King] Sihanouk, one in Beijing in 1994. I was playing a mother who did not want
her daughter to marry a rich man. She was not sure of her daughter's loyalty,"
"I liked to act for him because he usually paid me quite well, around $50 to
$100," she said.
But acting was not enough to feed her and her family. Moeun joined the army in the
mid-60's and trained a special unit of actor-soldiers - the military army troupe.
"I never went to the front. Being a soldier was only a good way to earn a living,"
In 1975, she tried to flee Phnom Penh for Thailand. She was arrested by the Khmer
Rouge as she was passing through Siem Reap. "I never lied to them. I told them
straight away that I was an actress. Anyway, it would have been impossible for me
to hide who I was. They knew me from my films."
"Often they told me 'Me Moeun, come and dance for us'. I think they liked me
because they thought that I was an actress against the government. In one of my films
I played a mother who does not want her daughter to get married with a rich man."
Seven of her eight children perished during Pol Pot's regime.
Moeun resumed acting when she returned to Phnom Penh. She has also given acting lessons
at the University, and when young comedians want to know about old forms of theater
that have disappeared they ask her for advice and details.
Moeun has no doubt about the qualities needed to be an actor. She can say at once
whether an actor is talented or not. To test it, it is simple: ask them to cry immediately,
"Very few actresses are able to cry at once, like me. Empor Devi is able to
do it, the others cannot. The director of the film might have to wait maybe ten or
15 minutes before the tears appear," she says.
"This is a part of the gift. Either you have it or not," she says, and
starts a demonstration.
She moves her nose, and her mouth, and screws and rubs her eyes. Within the next
minute tears appear. "I am worthy of my work," she says.
Last year, she acted in a film for Thai IBC5 television: The Ghost of My Village.
She has been waiting for a job to come along since.
"I am still able to act. If someone needs me, they only need come and ask me.
I am ready. I take care of my health. I only have 40,000 riels as a pension, so acting
is always good way to have extra money," she says.
Moeun is now living with her son in a small wooden house in a compound of an official
"It is not really a squat, but it is not also very legal," she says.
Moeun only has one cassette of her last film in the house.
"I do not like it when my grandchildren look at it. I look at my films only
once, to be sure that I acted well. After that I never look at them again. Sometimes
they look at it too much."
Moeun is pessimistic on the future of Cambodian cinema. "No one is writing for
the Cambodian cinema.
"The King is the only one who does anything. I think that in the next years
audiences are going to forget about Cambodian films."