Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Film shot in 1980s Phnom Penh gives glimpse of city under KR

Film shot in 1980s Phnom Penh gives glimpse of city under KR

Content image - Phnom Penh Post
The film’s depiction of Phnom Penh as a ghost town is hauntingly realistic. Photo supplied

Film shot in 1980s Phnom Penh gives glimpse of city under KR

In the aftermath of the Khmer Rouge, a film crew recreated some of the regime’s most horrific acts in the capital. Forgotten for decades, the feature has finally been subtitled in English

The place is Phnom Penh, 1979, immediately following the fall of Pol Pot. A grainy film shows a Czechoslovakian doctor walking through the debris around the deserted Central Market.

Amid piles of shoes is a grandfather clock, evidently left standing in the street since the city had been evacuated four years earlier.

He winds up the derelict artefact of a lost time and a chime rings out.

Viewers would be excused for believing they’re watching genuine footage of Phnom Penh days after the city’s liberation.

Content image - Phnom Penh Post
Leang Chanrith. Kim McCosker

In fact, the Czechoslovakian-Cambodian production was made after the Vietnamese had occupied the city – but only just.

Nine Circles of Hell will be screened with English subtitles for the first time on Sunday at Meta House.

Nico Mesterharm, founder of Meta House, said the film served as testimony to Cambodia’s darkest days.

“You could say it’s the Cambodian answer to the Hollywood production The Killing Fields,” said Mesterharm, adding that he believed it was the only surviving Cambodian feature film from the 1980s.

The film, directed by filmmaker Milan Muchna, follows a similar formula to Roland Joffe’s more famous counterpart.

A Czechoslovakian doctor arrives to Cambodia in 1969 and falls in love with a local actress.

The two get married, but are separated during the chaotic 1975 Khmer Rouge takeover of Phnom Penh.

The film’s timeline alternates, with the action moving between the main story arch and the protagonist’s return in 1979 to search for his wife.

But unlike The Killing Fields, which was shot in Thailand, Nine Circles of Hell was filmed entirely in Cambodia. Phnom Penh neighbourhoods, which were still sparsely populated at the time of production, were emptied to give the appearance of the evacuated city, while scenes of Khmer Rouge cadres marching through the streets were filmed on the same boulevards that the actual communist fighters had advanced on a just few years before.

Content image - Phnom Penh Post
Khmer Rouge extras advance on Norodom Boulevard. Photo supplied

As Phnom Penh had changed little aesthetically since 1979 – the dilapidated city remained mostly unrepaired until the arrival of the UN in the early 1990s – production consultant Mao Ayuth, who now serves as a secretary of state at the Ministry of Information, said it was easy to capture the era’s post-apocalyptic atmosphere.

“The situation was favourable to us, with all the ghost houses and the capsized ships still in the city – all we needed to do was decorate some stuff to make it look more real,” he said, adding that his main job was modifying the Czechoslovakian-written script to add authenticity.

“I tried my best to help them to show what exactly it looked like in that era,” he said, adding that filming brought back memories of his own grim experiences.

Atrocities depicted included the evacuation of hospitals on the day of the city’s fall, the deadly conditions of labour camps and forced marriages.

Perhaps most disturbing is the film’s depiction of Tuol Sleng.

Shot at the prison, the brutality of S-21 is brought to life with disturbingly accurate portrayals of bleeding, emaciated prisoners, all shot inside the rooms where the torture actually happened.

Content image - Phnom Penh Post
Scenes of Toul Sleng were shot in the actual prison. Photo supplied

The movie was a local hit at the time, Mesterharm said, with the movie regularly shown on state TV.

Although the intended audience was primarily Cambodian despite the Czechoslovakian involvement, it was screened at Cannes in 1989 in the Un Certain Regard section.

Though well remembered among the old generation, it fell into obscurity – it took four years for Mesterharm to track down a copy from the Ministry of Information.

“The recreation of empty Phnom Penh is somehow stunning. The film is not the best shot or best acted film in the world, but it’s a document and some of the scenes look so real – because it was a state production they could just seal off whole areas.”

Leang Chanrith, a retired obstetrician at the Khmer-Soviet hospital who played a supporting role as a colleague of the protagonist, said the movie was one of the best ways to convey the horror of the Kingdom’s darkest years.

“I’m happy to have it serve like a documentary for the younger generation, because it’s real. Everyone, from the actors to the crew, knew the reality of the killing fields firsthand. It’s the only one of its kind,” he said.

MOST VIEWED

  • Research key to Kanitha’s rep for expertise

    Sok Kanitha is used to weighing in on controversial issues using a confident approach that signals expertise and authority, and a recent video she made was no exception. Her “Episode 342: The History of NATO” video went live on January 16, 2023 and immediately shot to 30,000 likes and 3,500

  • Cambodia maintains 'Kun Khmer' stance despite Thailand’s boycott threat

    Cambodia has taken the position that it will use the term "Kun Khmer" to refer to the sport of kickboxing at the upcoming Southeast Asian (SEA) Games, and has removed the term Muay from all references to the sport. Despite strong reactions from the Thai

  • Knockout! Kun Khmer replaces ‘Muay’ for Phnom Penh Games

    Cambodia has decided to officially remove the word Muay from the programme of the 32nd Southeast Asian (SEA) Games 2023 in May. “Kun Khmer” will instead be used to represent the Southeast Asian sport of kickboxing, in accordance with the wishes of the Cambodian people. Vath

  • Artificial insemination takes herd from 7 to 700

    Some farms breed local cows or even import bulls from a broad for the purpose of breeding heavier livestock for meat production. One Tbong Khnum farmer has found a more efficient way. Hout Leang employs artificial insemination to fertilise local cows. Thanks to imported “straws”

  • New int’l airport nearly half complete as travel industry returns to life

    Construction of a new airport that is slated to serve the capital has passed the 43 per cent completion mark, raising prospects for a proper recovery in the civil aviation and tourism sectors as international travellers return to the Kingdom in increasingly large numbers. The figure

  • Chinese group tours return to Cambodia starting Feb 6

    Cambodia is among 20 countries selected by Beijing for a pilot programme allowing travel agencies to provide international group tours as well as flight and hotel packages to Chinese citizens, following a three-year ban. As the days tick down until the programme kicks off on February 6,