Director Fay Sam Ang says people should see his version because of his attention to detail. "This is the true story of Tum and Teav," he says. Audiences find rival director Thou's version is close to what they learned in school.
The country's newest heartthrob, Souk Sor Phea, draws gasps from teenage girls as
he clambers on a motorbike and is driven away from the Chenla Cinema on Phnom Penh's
Monireth Boulevard. One girl thumps her chest and looks as though she might pass
out at the sight of her favorite actor.
Sor Phea seems embarrassed at the effect he is having these days, yet admits that
it's happening all the time. But does he like the attention? He gives a resounding
Recognition is just one of the benefits for the 22-year-old beau who has boyish good
looks and dons a small but trendy goatee on his chin. His starring role in the film
Tum Teav, a classic Khmer tale along the lines of Romeo and Juliet, has gone down
a storm with theater-goers.
Director Fay Sam Ang found Sor Phea to be the perfect Tum, Cambodia's Romeo. Not
only does his personality remind him of Tum, says Sam Ang, but like the legendary
character, he also has curly hair.
You might wonder what difference hair could make. The reason is that there are currently
two versions of Tum Teav showing in cinemas. One is directed by Sam Ang, and the
other by a Cambodian-American, Davi R Thou. The lead actor in Thou's film is Sovan
Makara, who has straight hair.
Hair is one of the more visible differences between the two films. The women in Sam
Ang's film have the helmet hair that appears to have been the fashion for Cambodian
women in the early 17th Century, when the events of Tum Teav supposedly took place.
Those in Thou's film have more modern hairstyles, but it isn't just that their hair
is long and straight. Tan Sim, the director of the Chenla Cinema, says: "In
that movie, they even have some actors with highlighted hair."
Follicular factors apart, both movies tell essentially the same story. Tum Teav is
the tale of a monk, Tum, who falls in love with a beautiful girl, Teav. His passion
for her causes him to renounce the monkhood, despite predictions that he will be
killed. Their love, while perfect, is not strong enough to defeat the prophecy.
But there are differences in the telling. In Sam Ang's film, the provincial governor's
son, Mung Ngorn, is in search of a wife and falls in love with Teav. Tum had already
moved to the King's court, so Teav's mother arranges a marriage to Mung Ngorn.
Tum returns on the wedding day and attempts to break it up. He has a decree from
the King that Tum and Teav should be married, but is killed by the provincial governor
before he can present it.
And that is just the start of the bloodshed. When Teav finds the body in the forest,
she kills herself. Teav's faithful servant, Neang Neau, then commits suicide out
of grief. The King also weighs in, ordering that the provincial governor, his wife
and retinue, and Teav's conniving mother all be killed in a gruesome manner-they
are buried alive and plowed over.
In Thou's film, the young man Tum is a court musician and Teav is about to be married
to the King. Tum breaks up the wedding when he is sent to perform, and the King agrees
that the young couple should be together. But Teav's mother doesn't agree and arranges
a marriage between Teav and Mung Ngorn. Tum attempts to break up that ceremony as
But the trick that worked with the King does not work a second time. The provincial
governor has Tum killed, leading Teav to commit suicide when she finds his body.
There are fewer deaths in Thou's film, but these two take much longer. Teav crawls
towards Tum's body, and with her last breath collapses on her love.
At a recent screening, one exasperated theater-goer screamed at the character playing
Neau, the servant: "You should kill yourself!" Neau seemed reluctant to
do so as she grieved over the two bodies. But in the end, as she waits for Teav's
mother to arrive, she stabs herself and tries to crawl to Teav's body. She doesn't
quite make it.
Although both movies are about the same tale and replete with treachery, agony and
heartbreak, they were made with different attention to detail. Sam Ang went to the
ministries of culture and education to ensure that every detail-from clothing to
hair to music-was accurate for the 17th century.
He used traditional Khmer instruments and songs throughout the movie. On the other
hand, Thou's film has a far more modern approach, with synthesizers and songs that
would not be out of place in a karaoke bar.
"It's very expensive because we had to make the clothes, everything," says
Kong Socheat, Sam Ang's producer and a supporting actor.
The opening frame of Thou's movie is an apology. In white letters on a black screen,
Thou, a 20-year-old Khmer-American film student from California, apologizes for any
mistakes. But he says his movie is almost completely accurate.
"The audience has evaluated my film already," he says. "It is 85 to
90 percent correct."
And the pressure is high for both filmmakers. Tum Teav is one of the most beloved
stories in Khmer literature, says Ponn Chhay, director of studies and professor of
literature at the Royal University of Phnom Penh.
Chhay says the story was originally passed down by monks over the centuries, and
was finally put on paper in the early 1900s, just as Khmer nationalism began to flower.
Every high-school student spends a year studying the story, while university students
pore over the text to find hidden meanings, and a picture of everyday Khmer life
in earlier times.
"It is the only story that shows how people lived," says Chhay.
But for Chhay, Tum Teav is not simply an historical document. He says it represents
a fight for independence by two young people, and resonates with today's youth.
"Every young person has a little Tum and Teav inside of them," he says.
Danh Monica, left, who plays Teav in Sam Ang's version, faced an even harsher critic. Her mother, Men Channry, right, played Teav in stage productions of the legend throughout the Sixties.
Along with the pressure of playing a character loved by all Khmers, Danh Monica,
who played Teav in Sam Ang's version, faced an even harsher critic. Her mother, Men
Channry, played Teav in stage productions of the legend throughout the Sixties.
"This was my most difficult role because my mother was Teav before," says
Monica, already a veteran of two previous films.
Men Channry initially thought her daughter was not right for the part.
"I thought she was too young," says Channry. "But the producers say
she is okay, so she is okay."
Phnompenhois seem to agree with Channry's assessment, and are lining up to see both
versions. Glitzy posters-using photographs rather than the usual paintings-are everywhere.
A truck advertising Sam Ang's movie drives around Phnom Penh, complete with a megaphone
and recorded message.
Kong Socheat says her production company, SSB, has almost broken even on its $200,000
movie, which opened on June 22.
"And we've got almost one more month in the theaters," she says.
Socheat adds that the movie is already showing throughout Southeast Asia, and the
Ministry of Culture is looking to submit it for viewing at film festivals in India
A crowd close to 100 people, young and old, packed into the Lux Theater on Norodom
Boulevard on a recent Monday afternoon to watch the classic tale of love and loss.
The theater was about half full, not bad for a Monday afternoon.
"It's the same as what I learned in school," says Pheng, a 25-year-old
who had just seen the show. He was pleased with Sam Ang's film and will soon watch
the competing version of Tum Teav.
Business has also been brisk at the Chenla Theater. Although seats cost 7,000 riel,
cinema director Tan Sim says he can't remember a more popular production. There are
four screenings on Saturday and Sunday, and every one of the 600 seats is taken.
About 600 people come on an average weekday.
"On Saturday and Sunday, our theater is full," he says. "It's the
most popular show in Cambodia."
And the box office contest is not yet over: Thou's movie has sold 100,000 tickets
nationwide since opening on June 21, says Kheng Kim Srun, a representative of the
distributor, Angkor Universal productions.
Audiences have found Thou's film to be close to the legend they learned at school,
but have pointed out a few differences. Ros Vannoeun, a 25-year-old student, says
the movie is a good interpretation, but still lacks some details.
"It is mostly what I studied in school," he says, but points out that in
the book, Teav poured wine into Tum's cupped hands during her wedding to Mung Ngorn.
That did not happen in Thou's movie.
Sam Ang says people should see his version because of his attention to detail.
"This is the true story of Tum and Teav," says the 40-year-old director.
But university professor Ponn Chhay is more diplomatic. He plans on seeing both movies
when they come out on DVD, and has heard good reviews of both from his students.
"I cannot say which is better," he says. "They are just different
ways of telling the same story."