Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Highlights of the Cambodia International Film Festival

Film Festival

In sheer size, variety and star power, little in the Kingdom compares to the Cambodia International Film Festival, now in its eighth year. Beginning on Tuesday, six days are packed with films from around the world. Filmmakers, actors and producers are flying in to attend screenings, give talks and generally soak in what Cambodia has to offer to the world of cinema.

With more than 100 films, it is impossible to provide a comprehensive “best of” guide but The Post has scoured the schedule to pick its highlights. Not included here, with some exceptions, is the astounding assortment of international films from all over the region, and beyond, which will be screening throughout the capital.

All showings are free, with a $1 charge for last-minute tickets.
Stay tuned for more coverage throughout next week.

Showcase: Vithaya Pansringarm

The festival is lucky to have not only Thai actor Vithaya Pansringarm (right) in the house for a selection of his films, but also Tom Waller, who directed The Last Executioner, in which Pansringarm portrayed the last man to carry out executions by rifle in Thailand. With a martial arts pedigree dating back three decades, the 58-year-old came to the movie industry late but has made his mark on the international stage. He won best actor at the Shanghai Film Festival in 2014 for his role in The Last Executioner, playing rock ’n’ roller-turned-rifleman Chavoret Jaruboon.

Waller, who was born in Thailand, has said the film was an attempt to broaden the horizons of the Thai film industry beyond horror and comedy. They will both be at the screening of The Last Executioner on Tuesday evening, followed by Pansringarm’s 2016 film The Forest.

The Last Executioner will play on Tuesday at Legend Cinema in Tuol Kork at 6:30pm, followed by The Forest at 8:45pm.

Cambodia as a backdrop

In many ways, 2016 and early 2017 was a breakout period for local cinema and last year’s festival was a chance to showcase that. This year has been a little calmer on the local movie front, but the festival will be showing five feature films produced recently in Cambodia, three of which have come out in the last year. One of festival director Cedric Eloy’s aims is to be accessible to all tastes, meaning there is little snobbery when it comes to genres. So for a glimpse at commercial Khmer cinema, there is Sdech Korn, a historical epic about the “usurper king”, who reigned for seven years beginning in 1498 and who is a figure of intense fascination for Prime Minister Hun Sen.

There will also be The Witch (left), a local horror film by Huy Yaleng in which a local tycoon’s seemingly benign wound grows into something much more ominous. There is also the French film The Path, shot in Cambodia, about a woman who joins a Catholic mission in northwestern Cambodia. Every morning, she crosses paths with a Khmer man named Sambath, and a relationship develops. Producer Catherine Dussart will attend the Cambodia premiere of the film on March 7 at Major Cineplex Sorya.

First They Killed My Father and Inside the Belly of a Dragon will also be screened at the festival.

Films from the diaspora

As much as the festival is an opportunity to show local films to an international audience, it is also an occasion for some of the huge diaspora community to convene in Cambodia. Every year, Cedric Eloy says, there is at least one film from a director in the diaspora exploring ties to either their birth country or the former home of their parents. This year, there are three films exploring these themes, including The First Generation – Memoirs of Cambodia by Kemara and Abraham Pol, which is an oral history project about five people now living in Austria who fled the Khmer Rouge regime.

The filmmakers will be present for the screening, which will be the film’s Cambodia premiere. There will also be two documentaries with remarkably similar themes from diaspora directors continents apart. French-Cambodian filmmaker Neary Adeline Hay’s Angkar was inspired by her lack of understanding about the experiences of her parents under the Khmer Rouge. In the documentary, her father returns to Cambodia for the first time to face his past. Meanwhile, the short documentary film A Life Like This, by New Zealand director Isaiah Tour, shows the director trying to get closer to his father by making a film about him – an attempt to unpack the details of his refugee story.

A Life Like This and The First Generation – Memoirs of Cambodia will be screening at the French Institute at 1:30pm on Sunday, March 11. Angkar will be screening at multiple locations throughout the festival.

Tribute to Ly Bun Yim

In the 1960s, Cambodian director Ly Bun Yim revolutionised the country’s silver screen by putting special effects into The Twelve Sisters (above), a movie based on a well-known Khmer folktale about 12 sisters who suffer hardship because of the sins of a previous life.

Yim’s production surprised viewers by featuring effects like a mythical Pegasus and bloody scenes of violence. Now 86, he is suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, but he still remembers his glory days.

“Tens of thousands of people were watching the films, and it was even screened abroad,” he said this week at his house in Takhmao.

In a special tribute to the filmmaker, a selection of Bun Yim’s movies will be showing at the festival, including a never-before-seen remastered version of The Twelve Sisters.

His other films Sobasith, a classic love story that was the debut of actress Virak Dara, and Orn Euy Srey Orn – based on a legend about marriage – will also be screened.

The remastered version of 12 Sisters, in Khmer with English subtitles, will be screened at Chaktomuk Theatre on Wednesday evening at 6:30pm, with Bun Yim in attendance.

True stories from the Kingdom

This year’s festival has a full slate of Cambodia-related documentaries, with the highlight being the Cambodian premiere of Surviving Bokator (lead image), a film seven years in the making about Cambodia’s ancient martial arts tradition. The film focuses mostly on Grandmaster San Kim Sean, the renowned L’Bokator practitioner who, since surviving the Khmer Rouge, has devoted his life to reviving the artform. There will also be another film on a similar topic – namely the survival of ancient traditions through the sheer devotion of certain individuals. Cambodian Textiles by Tatsuhito Utagawa looks at the work of Kikuo Morimoto, who set up an institute to promote Khmer silk weaving. The film is an intimate portrait of the man as he faces terminal cancer, which ultimately led to his passing last year. The Thursday screening at Aeon Mall will be its Cambodian premiere.

The film Until They’re Gone will also be making its local premiere on Wednesday evening at the French Institute after its 2016 release. The documentary is about a California couple who leave their comfortable suburban life to found an organisation to combat the effects of landmines.

Surviving Bokator premieres at Chaktomuk Theatre on Thursday at 6:30pm. Until They’re Gone will screen at 2:30pm on Sunday at Bophana Center and Cambodian Textiles (above) premieres at Bophana at 5pm on Wednesday.

Panorama of Bhutan cinema

Bhutan’s first feature length film by Kyentshe Norbu came out in 2002, just two years after the arrival of the internet there and three years after the first local television broadcasts. While the highly religious Himalayan mountain kingdom remains very isolated – in part, it is said, to protect its ancient culture – it is gradually opening to the world, and film is no exception, with now roughly 20 films being produced any given year.

Many such features are local Bollywood-style films for the domestic audience, but international interest has grown for young independent filmmakers such as Norbu, Dechen Roder and Tashi Gyeltshen. Through their pictures, audiences can experience the stunning scenery and rich stories of Bhutan – without paying the hefty visa fees to visit the country itself. These films also take on many of the social issues the country faces as it transitions and opens up to modernity while trying to preserve its distinct identity and Buddhist perspective.

Festivalgoers to this year’s CIFF can experience three different feature films from Bhutan, as well as two shorts.

Norbu, My Beloved Yak, by Pelden Dorji, tells the story of a 20-year-old yak herder, Samten Norbu, who tends the flock for a rich man who lives in a faraway town. Norbu develops an inseparable bond with a calf by the same name but after it is sacrificed as a part of a marriage ritual, the young herder is heartbroken. To mend his spirit he becomes a lama and travels the country in search of his beloved animal’s spirit.

Kushuthara: Pattern of Love (above), a film by Karma Deki, is the tale of the past and present lives of two people born in different corners of the world who are destined to meet. It’s a spiritual spin on a boy-meets-girl tale that goes far deeper than a simple story of love.

Loday Chophel, the main actor in The Prophecy, will present the film in person and answer questions about his country for audiences. The film tells the story of a young boy destined to be a spiritual leader who unwittingly develops a connection with a young girl who brings her ailing mother to be blessed. What ensues is a spiritual journey that challenges the cultural norms of their country.

The Prophecy will be screening at 3pm at Aeon’s Major Cineplex, with Loday Chopel answering questions in person.

A beautiful planet

This year’s festival also features a series of films on the subject of nature and the environment. The Kingdom, itself home to some of the world’s most unique and spectacular ecosystems, is also on the front lines of the struggle to protect such ecosystems in the face of resource extraction, climate change and the pressures of development.

Not to be missed is A Cambodian Nature Film: Kingdom of Nature, the first Khmer-language full-length nature documentary about Cambodia. Narrated by naturalist Chea Samban, the film gives audiences a tour of the country’s varied and unique habitats.

Also scheduled on Tuesday evening is a panel discussion with conservation experts, which will occur alongside short documentary screenings from 6pm-8pm at Paññasastra University’s South Campus.

From abroad, Jared P Scott’s The Age of Consequences is an American production that investigates the impacts of climate change: resource scarcity, migration and conflict. By analysing case studies, Scott makes clear the inextricable link between human security and nature.

Viewers can also take a super-high definition tour through the Austrian Alps with Rita Schlamberg’s 2015 documentary Making an Ancient Forest – Kalkalpen National Park, the largest Alpine wilderness area, which has been entirely untouched for nearly 25 years.

On Tuesday there is a panel at Pannasastra University from 6-8pm about the environment, with several short docs to be screened.

Compiled by Rinith Taing, Suntharoth Ouk, Alessandro Marazzi-Sassoon and James Reddick

A previous version of this article said next week would be the worldwide premiere of Surviving Bokator. In fact it is the Cambodian premiere. This has been corrected.