Exactly 50 years ago, the Cambodian film industry was propelled forward by the release of Puthyisen Neang Kong Rey, or “12 Sisters”, by iconic director Ly Bun Yim. It was one of the first local films shot on 35 millimetre film, not 16mm, and it used daring special effects in a way the Kingdom had not seen before – showing a flying Pegagus, gory eye-gouging and a dramatic earthquake. The story follows the hardships of the dozen sisters, who suffer from sins committed in past lives.
Between 1960 and 1975, Bun Yim produced more than 20 films. But when Cambodia fell under the rule of the Pol Pot regime, almost all of his works were lost. Just three are known to remain in usable condition today – “12 Sisters”, Sobasith and Orn Euy Srey Orn.
“Before 2012, we only have the poor quality image film of ‘12 Sisters’ that people can see if they go to Ly Bun Yim’s house and ask him to show the film on the TV,” said filmmaker Davy Chou.
Fortunately, that year a higher quality 35mm print of the film was found at the house of Bun Yim’s son, Dawish D Nil, in Norwalk, California, though it was a version dubbed into Thai.
It was sent to Berlin to be screened in the Forum program of the Berlin Film Festival, with English subtitles.
“At that time, the people were so happy to see the film . . . After the event people asked whether or not they can screen the film, but the director of the Forum . . . said the film is too fragile so we should keep it and wait for the restoration,” he said.
Not wanting to risk further damaging the print, it was left in a temperature-controlled laboratory – at minus 18 Celsius – in Berlin.
There it sat for four years waiting for restoration. In 2016, it was digitised into a high-definition format by Nobukazu Suzuki, a Japanese archivist who has worked to preserve Cambodia’s trove of old films. It was then screened in Japan with dubbed Thai audio and Japanese subtitles.
“I think it took only one week [for him] because it is not restoration but a digitisation,” Chou said.
Last year, Kyoto University, in association with the Japan Foundation and with the assistance of former Bophana archivist Lim Sophorn, worked with Bun Yim to re-synchronise the Khmer audio into the film, which was later screened again in Japan.
Tonight at Chaktomuk Theater, “12 Sisters” will be showing in high definition in Cambodia for the first time, with Khmer audio re-synchronised and English subtitles added by the Bophana Center. The screening is part of a special tribute to the director in which the festival will show all three of his remaining movies. For Chou and the many film buffs working behind the scenes, it’s a moment years in the making.
“I hope we will have a house full of young people,” he said. “For me, the screening of this film is historic.”
“12 Sisters” will be showing tonight at Chaktomuk Theater at 6:30pm, in the presence of director Ly Bun Yim. “Khmer After Angkor”, or Orn Euy Srey Orn, is showing Thursday morning at Bophana Center at 10am.