Now that the Woody Allen-Kristen Stewart opening-film juggernaut of Cafe Society is safely out of the way, the 2016 Cannes Film Festival (May 11 to 22) is finally ready for its Cambodia Day. It’s not exactly an officially branded event, for sure, but who could argue otherwise when Cambodian auteur Rithy Panh and Cambodian-French filmmaker Davy Chou are making back-to-back bows with their latest films on the Croisette today?
Represented by four features and one short film across different sections at Cannes, South Korea remains the country with the biggest presence at the famous French film festival this year. But Cambodia is not far behind: the country boasts as many festival entries this time around as the traditional festival-circuit big-hitters of Japan, Singapore, Iran and India.
Both Panh’s Exile (a special screening in the official selection) and Chou’s Diamond Island (a competition entry at the Critics’ Week sidebar) are co-productions with French partners, with the two films counting on the support of – among others – the influential arthouse broadcaster-producer Arte France.
In film-industry terms, their appearances at Cannes could be seen as a homecoming – but content-wise, the films are thoroughly Cambodian, providing a look at two very different perspectives of the country’s socio-historical reality today.
Having last appeared at Cannes with The Missing Picture – it won the top prize at Cannes’ Un Certain Regard section in 2013 – Panh has returned to the festival with a film that again draws largely on his own personal history.
In his production notes, the filmmaker describes Exile as “a meditation on absence . . . and on inner solitude, geography, politics” through a story of a boy growing up in Khmer Rouge-ruled Cambodia, and the man he would eventually become.
Promising a “crossing that blends the colours of today and the images of yesterday”, Panh is perhaps hinting at a mix of the heartbreaking visuals of The Missing Picture and the archive-footage montage that shapes last year’s France Is Our Mother Country, a reflective piece about the legacy of French colonialism.
While Panh trawls the past to understand the present, Chou zeroes in on the here and now to seek harbingers of the future.
Having revisited the Khmer Rouge’s deadly legacy on Cambodia’s cinematic heritage with his first feature-length documentary Golden Slumbers, Chou – the grandson of the skilled 1960s and ’70s film producer Van Chann – now turns towards the young people seeking fame and fortune in and around one of the many lavish residential complexes sprouting up across Phnom Penh today.
A follow-up to his short film Cambodia 2099, which received its world premiere at the Directors’ Fortnight program at Cannes two years ago, Diamond Island stars a cast made up entirely of non-professional actors.
Nuon Sobon, who plays the 18-year-old protagonist plunging headlong into Phnom Penh’s spinning nightlife, is a taxi driver, one of the many people he discovered during a four-month search at construction sites and on social media.
While differing in their themes and aesthetics, both Exile and Diamond Island revolve around an anxiety about the uncertain future towards which Cambodian hearts, minds and bodies are careening.
Given its strong and diverse showing at one of the world’s premier film festivals – not to mention achievements attained elsewhere, such as Sotho Kulikar’s awards in Tokyo in 2014 with The Last Reel – Cambodian cinema’s gradual resurgence seems more certain.