Filmmaker Sok Visal’s new feature flips the script on traditional portrayals of LGBT characters in Cambodian cinema. Not because of some rights agenda, he says, but just to tell a human – and entertaining – story.
When actress and entertainer Poppy – born Leang Sothea – found herself in rural Kampong Chhnang last October on the set of her latest film, Poppy Goes to Hollywood, the villagers already knew her as “Miss Poppy”.
She has arguably been the most recognisable transgender woman in the Kingdom since 2001, when she was crowned the winner of Cambodia’s first Thai-style “ladyboy” beauty contest.
This time around, she is not the only trans woman on screen. Among her co-stars are two other transgender women; two men who dress as women; and one man who must cross-dress for the sake of the film’s plot, which involves a gang of ladyboy performers on the run.
Poppy Goes to Hollywood is undoubtedly – and unusually – a movie with the “third gender” at its forefront. Set to premiere in Phnom Penh on Thursday, the film could be the first mainstream genderqueer-friendly feature produced in Cambodia, according to director Sok Visal.
“It’s been done before, but in a different way,” Visal said this week. “There were some other films that had transsexual or gay characters, but they were comic and they weren’t main characters. These characters are normal people.”
On this point, Poppy agreed. “Not that I look down on other productions, but I really admire the concept of this film,” she said. “It’s different from the others.”
Poppy Goes to Hollywood is only Sok Visal’s second feature film, and his first time directing one solo. His previous work – all in Khmer – includes the low-budget action-comedy Gems on the Run, shorts, music videos and commercials. He also runs the hip-hop music label KlapYaHandz.
Visal’s new movie isn’t a huge departure from Gems on the Run. It cost just short of $85,000 to make and is targeted at a young, Khmer audience. He said this one was meant to be “70 per cent entertainment, and maybe the rest education”.
“If they don’t enjoy it, they won’t tell their friends to see it,” he explained.
The director immediately decided to adapt the script after meeting the screenwriters, Michael Hodgson and Richard Johnson, in Phnom Penh. “I thought it was an important story to tell – the struggles of the LGBT community here,” he said. But he also liked that the script had a large dose of humour.
Poppy Goes to Hollywood revolves around Mony, a transphobic womaniser (Un Sothear) who falls into money trouble and turns to his estranged brother (Pee Mai) – a performer in a ladyboy club – for help.
After witnessing a murder outside the venue, he is forced to disguise himself as one of the dancers and call himself ‘Poppy’. The group (led by the real-life Poppy who plays ‘Sasa’ in the film) then head to Preah Vihear to hide out in ‘Hollywood’, the skeleton of a club run by a former dancer.
The tropes are plentiful: Mony’s struggles to cut it as a woman; city-dwellers out of their element in the provinces; a commune chief’s son with a rebellious streak. But the film is subversive in the elevation of its female leads.
The women are strong, and none of the jokes poke fun at the notion of their gender-bending. Many of them, in fact, are digs at the male characters’ faults: an overactive libido, infidelity, the inability to walk in high heels.
Visal – who grew up in France but has been back in Cambodia for more than 23 years – does not seem to be the sort of director to helm such a project. He wears a flat-brimmed cap and speaks with a sort of California English not often heard discussing intersectional feminism. But in the midst of an interview with Post Weekend, that was where he ended up.
“I wanted to use the fact that [Mony] was turning into a woman to really emphasise the fact that transsexuals – meaning, mostly men turning to women in our film – are actually women,” he said. “They want to be women, and women . . . they have struggles, too.”
It is noteworthy that in Cambodia, as in neighbouring Thailand, “transgender” is not a word that translates. In fact, there are more than 200 Khmer words used to describe LGBT individuals in Cambodia, and not one that the community itself likes to use, according to a survey conducted last year by Rainbow Community Kampuchea (RoCK).
An equivalent for “trans” is not one of them. Trans women – those who are biologically male but tend to identify as female – prefer the term chae, or “sister”, which is peppered throughout Poppy Goes to Hollywood.
These nuances of language have likely developed because gender and sexual orientation in Cambodia, like in Thailand, have historically been considered more fluid than in Western countries, according to Nuon Sidara, a project coordinator at the Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR).
It’s a notion reflected by the new film’s main actors. “I don’t know whether I am ‘transgender’ or not, but I dress as a woman,” explained Peypey Dy, who stars as one of the ladyboy performers.
Many trans individuals in Cambodia never come out, and those who do face challenges: discrimination at school; physical violence; difficulty finding work. Many gravitate towards the cities in search of acceptance, Sidara said.
But recent CCHR research suggests that even in urban centres, trans women face discrimination from state actors: the country’s laws do not address trans identity, complicating things like changing one’s sex on an identity card, for example.
Of course, the stars of Poppy Goes to Hollywood serve as examples of countering discrimination – not least because they have found success in their work.
For Pee Mai, who plays Mony’s brother, this sort of economic achievement will lead to acceptance. “As long as we can advocate for ourselves and hold down a job, things will change,” Pee Mai said.
Say Seakla, an advocacy officer at RoCK, noted a sea change over the past five years, illustrated in part by RoCK’s survey. “People are becoming educated about transgender rights. Violence still exists, but it has been much reduced,” Seakla said.
And maybe films have a role to play, too. Un Sothear, who stars as Mony, believes so. He has starred as a leading man in more than a dozen movies, but never one who has to dress as a trans woman. “Trust me, people will understand transgender feelings through this film,” he said.
In neighbouring Thailand, kathoey, or “third gender” entertainers have played an increasingly prominent role in pop culture. (The word kathoey is considered a slur in Cambodia, something Visal’s film touches on.)
Thai trans women appeared in film mainly as stock characters before the early 2000s, according to Arnika Fuhrmann, a scholar at Cornell University in the US who studies sexuality in Southeast Asian cinema.
But a set of serious dramas began to shift perceptions, the most famous of which was Beautiful Boxer (2004), a biopic of a transgender muay thai fighter. More recently, there has been Inside of Me, a Thai short screened at the Chaktomuk Short Film Festival in Phnom Penh this year.
“There has been a switch to portraying kathoeys side-by-side with gay men and making their social and political rights an explicit issue,” Fuhrmann said.
Of course, visibility does not equate acceptance, and it’s difficult to predict how such a film will fare in the Kingdom: the market is much different, and Thailand has hundreds of theatres, whereas Cambodia has eight, as Visal pointed out.
Furthermore, there is no consensus on whether a Khmer comedy with a serious bent can strike the right tone. Some have their doubts.
“Comedy is comedy,” said director Chhay Bora, the president of the Motion Picture Association of Cambodia. “‘Social comedy’ is successful elsewhere, [but] I don’t see it yet in Cambodia.”
Sidara, of CCHR, added a caveat: “LGBT characters are often comedic and one-dimensional,” he said. “It is important that trans people and issues are not the joke.”
For director Visal, there wasn’t much of a choice: “In Cambodia, what works is comedy and horror.” Putting trans women in these leading roles, he said, “is an addition to a movement of these people coming out to say, ‘We’re here now, and you have to accept us.’”