The lip-synch isn't always perfect, the mustaches are the special effects highlight
of the film, and the hero's flowing helmet of hair is somewhat less than convincing.
But that didn't stop weekend crowds swamping the Vimean Tip cinema to marvel at Cambodia's
latest celluloid hero, Decho Domden.
Director Ly Bun Yim dreams of reviving Cambodia's dormant film industry.
The womanizing warrior is credited with driving the Siamese army from Cambodia's
western provinces with little more than a sword, a pocket full of magic dust and
a small army of ghosts to back him up.
If the weekend crowds are any guide, the film could follow the success of last year's
hit movie, Puos Keng Kong, (The Giant Snake). Filmmakers and would-be filmmakers
are looking at Decho Domden to continue the industry's revival.
"Film producers hesitate every day, but if this film is successful then many
will follow," says Chea Vanna, co-director of the historical epic.
For Vanna it is a personal revival as well. The film marks his return to directing
nearly 30 years after he last sat in the director's chair.
"Even though I lived miserably during the Khmer Rouge, I still knew I had the
talent," says Vanna, whose movies from the late 1960s and early 1970s were either
lost or destroyed during the Democratic Kampuchea era.
Drawing on a mix of karaoke stars and untrained actors, as well as horses, elephants,
body builders and hundreds of extras, the filmmakers have fashioned a historical
narrative that Vanna likens to the Hollywood epic Rob Roy.
Vanna says he was called in after the film's Boston-based producer despaired at the
decline of his native Khmer culture. Although Morodok Productions had only worked
on karaoke VCDs, they made the decision to reawaken Cambodia's dormant film industry.
The film, scripted by exiled writer Kong Bunchhoeun, is the tale of the twelfth century
warrior and Khmer hero, Okhna Montrei Ponea Decho Domden. The epic story required
a production on an epic scale.
"It was very costly to produce this film," says Vanna. "We bought
a whole village just to burn it down.
"There is not much hope of making money in Cambodia. We have more hope in the
US. In Cambodia we're only showing the film to show Cambodian children that this
is their Khmer history," says Vanna, whose second comeback feature, based on
the Khmer legend of the Twelve Sisters, is set for release in April.
Decho Domden was shot on digital video then sent to California where it was re-mastered
on to 35mm film. Its $160,000 cost is less than the catering bill for most Hollywood
films, but represents a huge financial gamble in Cambodia.
It's a risk that's made slightly more palatable by the knowledge that Cambodians
love Khmer films. The country was at one time able to sustain a large film industry.
Khmer films would run for months on end in the local cinemas.
"In the sixties foreign films would come for a short time and then disappear.
They couldn't compete with Cambodian films," says Vanna.
In its heyday more than 30 film production companies turned out some of the highest
quality films in the region. The film-loving then-Prince Sihanouk not only wrote
and directed his own films, he also sponsored aspiring filmmakers, lending them equipment
and sending them to France to study cinematography.
At annual film festivals the Prince would regularly walk away clutching a Golden
Apsara for directing the year's best film.
But while his cinematic experiments have garnered the most attention, he was far
from the most successful filmmaker in Phnom Penh.
That title probably belongs to Ly Bun Yim, whose epic stories of Khmer legends played
to huge audiences throughout the 1960s. Unlike many filmmakers associated with the
Royal Palace, Bun Yim was self-taught.
The son of Kampong Cham farmers, Bun Yim won a photography competition with a borrowed
camera while still a teenager. He immediately set about turning his talents into
a business, and built a makeshift enlarger from camera lenses and a shiny porcelain
toilet bowl. He started to photograph landscapes and sell the prints to tourists.
By the time he was 19, Bun Yim had built a successful pharmacy in Phnom Penh's Kampuchea
Krom Boulevard, but still dreamed of being a filmmaker. He sold the business and
gave most of the proceeds to his family. He kept just enough to travel to Hong Kong
and buy a 16mm movie camera.
And so "Runteaspich", or Flash Diamond Productions, was born, Using amateur
actors and casting himself as the lead, Bun Yim directed his first film, Thunderbolt
in the Family.
Like other films of the early Sixties the film was silent. Screenings were accompanied
by taped music, and live actors stood at the front of the theater and recited the
Poised for action in Decho Domden, the historical action drama and Cambodia's answer to Rob Roy.
While the French-trained filmmakers were trying to make "international"
style films, Bun Yim, whose hero is Cecile B DeMille, the grand master of the epic,
set out to make broad popular dramas that mixed myth and magic with comedy and action.
Always an innovator, he devised his own special effects that left audiences gasping.
The formula was a huge success and Bun Yim became a wealthy man. Some of his films
ran for six months straight.
"The French and Indian films would come for a week or two, but people would
see the Khmer films again and again," he says.
Only three of his films survived: Khmers After Angkor, Sabbseth and Twelve Sisters.
After fleeing Cambodia in 1976, Bun Yim managed to track down the negatives in France
and Hong Kong where they had been sent for processing.
After many years exhibiting the films to Cambodians living overseas he returned to
Phnom Penh in 1994, where the films again played to packed houses.
Bun Yim's current mission is no less than to revive the Cambodian film industry.
He is building a film studio in Takhmau and plans to go into production as soon as
he can raise the $200,000 he needs to buy a camera.
"I have received an avalanche of proposals," Bun Yim says of his film future.
First on the drawing board is Tum Teauv, a love story he calls the "Cambodian
Romeo and Juliet", as well as a contemporary tale that will warn young people
of the dangers of drugs. The sprightly 59-year-old believes the time is right to
restore Cambodia's cinematic pride.
"People from all walks of life want me to lift up the face of Khmer culture
again, but my life is not eternal," he says. "When I die I cannot bring
along my knowledge with me, so I must teach the Khmer children to make films. No
matter who they are I will teach them for free if they love Cambodian film."
The younger generation of filmmakers is led by Fay Sam Ang, director of last year's
hit Giant Snake. Sam Ang says piracy has seriously damaged the film industry, and
it will not have a future unless copyrights are protected. Although his $200,000
movie did turn a small profit, the country's VCD market was flooded with pirate copies
that ate into investor returns.
He agrees Cambodia's potential film producers have taken a wait-and-see attitude
to Decho Domden, but says nothing will dissuade him from making more films.
"I will not retreat. Cambodia is only known for karaoke but I want to disseminate
Khmer films on the international stage. I will make a new film every one or two years,"
The first of those films is likely to be Pkah Srapoun (Faded Flower), a tragic love
story in a colonial setting. His next project will likely see a race between Cambodia's
youngest filmmaker and its elder statesman. Sam Ang, like Bun Yim, is looking at
directing a version of Tum Teauv. And if the weekend crowds at Decho Domden are any
guide, then the audience may well be big enough for both films and many more besides.