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Exploring loss, recovery and memory through The Last Reel

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The Last Reel explores filmmaking in the post-Khmer Rouge era through the story of a young woman seeking to finish her mother’s film. Photo supplied

Exploring loss, recovery and memory through The Last Reel

The first feature-length film from Cambodian director Sotho Kulikar pleases with moving story, strong acting and breathtaking cinematography

In a telling scene from The Last Reel, deeply troubled mother Sothea (Dy Saveth) confides in her daughter Sophoun (Ma Rynet) about the ghosts that haunt her dreams.

In the first film from Cambodian director Sotho Kulikar, these ghosts are a figurative presence throughout the movie, representing the horrors of the past that the older generation is trying desperately to forget and which the younger generation is trying to comprehend.

The movie tells the fictional story of defiant protagonist Sophoun, a young woman who is fighting to assert her independence in a family and culture still deeply mired in their conservative past.

In seeking to escape the marriage her father has arranged, Sophoun seeks refuge in a crumbling movie theatre and it is here that she discovers the remnants of a film starring her very own mother, shot just before the fall of Phnom Penh.

With the help of Vichea (Sok Sothun), the theatre’s live-in caretaker, she works to recreate the missing scenes from the film in the hope that it might provide some amount of healing for her damaged mother.

What follows is a multi-generational story of love and redemption, overlain with the horrors of the Khmer Rouge’s legacy on the country.

It is estimated only 30 of the 300 or so films produced prior to the time of the Khmer Rouge have survived, and this film uses this sad fact to reflect not only the cultural loss from this time, but the greater human tragedy as well.

(Filmmakers were among those singled out for extermination by the regime).

You feel that the film, more than simple entertainment, wants to contribute to the healing process of the generation that lived through the horrors of the Khmer Rouge period and to educate those born afterwards – those who are unaware, or even indifferent, to the chaos of those dark days.

From a narrative perspective, the film wanders aimlessly at times, and some of the conclusions drawn in the end are strange indeed. Some more effective editing could have resulted in a more powerful and coherent story.

However, the brilliant performances, particularly of mother and daughter, are enough to make this film succeed. The characters drawn by writer Ian Masters are complex, flawed and unsettlingly relatable.

It is beautifully shot and the colour palette and lighting capture the neon-lit, decrepit feel of modern day Phnom Penh, while carefully contrasting the rural scenes and paying tribute to the older Khmer style of filmmaking.

What’s most remarkable about this film is not only the strong female leads but also the powerful female vision behind the camera. With this film, Kulikar has established herself as a talented filmmaker, who was able to draw powerful performances from her often inexperienced cast.

At its core, The Last Reel is richly drawn and very human. In the director’s own words, “The Last Reel is really about the overwhelming human need for storytelling … as a part of the reconciliation process.” And to this end, she most certainly achieves her aims.

If this is a sign of the future of Cambodian cinema, then there is a great deal to be positive about.

The Last Reel is an honest, haunting but ultimately uplifting portrayal of a people and a country still coming to terms with its tortured past.

James happell

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