UNDER a hot noon sun a cohort of 800 sword and spear- bearing men dressed in the decorative battle dress of the Siamese and Angkorian empires backed up by horses and elephants face off against each other at the base of Baseth Mountain northwest of Phnom Penh.
A mock battle rages between Khmer and Siamese forces.
At a given signal, the massed fighters give a roar and a swell of men, steeds and pachyderms race toward each other and begin fierce, if choreographed hand-to-hand, trunk-to-trunk combat.
Welcome to the on-location shooting of Decho Domden, the first Khmer historical epic to be filmed in Cambodia since the celluloid experiments of King Norodom Sihanouk in the 1960s.
Since January the Morodok Film Production Company has cornered the market in beefy Cambodian muscle farmers who look good in decorative period costume and body armor to fill out the army of extras necessary for the film's numerous battle scenes. Filming is due to end this month.
Vo Sarun, advisor to the Morodok, which is financing the US$100,000 movie, says that Decho Domden is far more than just an attempt to jump-start the long stagnant Cambodian film industry. For Sarun the film is nothing less than Cambodia's answer to Brave-heart, a rallying cry to Khmer youth to treasure and defend their Kingdom's territorial integrity.
"We want to show the bravery of our heroes of the past to the new generation," he said. "Whether we make any money from the movie isn't so important."
The film documents the travails and victories of Okhna Montrei Ponea Decho Domden, a 12th-century Cambodian warrior credited with turning back land-hungry invaders led by Ponea Rong from the then-Kingdom of Siam.
The film highlights the bravery of historical Khmer heroes who fought against neighboring countries' attempts to invade the Kingdom.
Actor Narin plays the part of 12th-century Cambodian commander in the film Decho Domden.
The potential propaganda value of the film is recognized and applauded by Pok Vanthy, Deputy Director of the Ministry of Culture's Cinema and Diffusion Culture Department (CDCD). The lessons of the past, Vanthy said in reference to ongoing land disputes on both the Thai and Vietnamese borders, are still poignantly relevant today.
"We want to provide knowledge to the new Khmer generation regarding the history of [Cambodia's] loss of territory and to inspire them to help to protect what we have now and not to lose it again," Vanthy said.
That raw nationalistic message goes down fine with Hom Sotheanith, 29, who has been chosen to portray the film's hero.
"This is our ancient history and Decho Domden is an excellent hero who took [Cambodian] land back from the enemy," Sothea-nith said.
Mindful of the importance of maintaining friendly ties with Thailand, the CDCD and the Ministry of Fine Arts and Culture are still mulling the wisdom of portraying the predecessor to Cambodia's neighboring Kingdom as an imperialistic aggressor.
Vanthy told the Post that in order not to create a potential diplomatic incident following the film's release later this year, the CDCD will ask the film's producers to replace references to "Siam" in the script with the more generic term "enemy".
But Vanthy said such a move did not reflect official disagreement with the historical events that Decho Domden portrays.
"We must be careful to retell the history because we have documents [that prove Decho Domden's premise]," he said. "If we forget [our history] we will erase our achievements of the past."
Morodok hopes to screen the film in the United States to finance a later premiere in Cambodia.