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The man who painted Cambodian cinema’s ‘golden age’

Moeun Chhay, pictured outside Battambang’s Golden Temple Cinema, is thought to be the last surviving painter of ‘golden age’ film posters.
Moeun Chhay, pictured outside Battambang’s Golden Temple Cinema, is thought to be the last surviving painter of ‘golden age’ film posters. Scott Rotzoll

The man who painted Cambodian cinema’s ‘golden age’

As a teenager, self-taught artist Moeun Chhay earned the princely sum of 900 riel per month painting advertising hoardings for Cambodian films showing in Battambang. Now probably the last living exponent of the pre-Khmer Rouge craft, his work is finally receiving the appreciation it deserves

Moeun Chhay’s house sits snug to the Golden Temple Cinema on Battambang’s Street Two.

The neighbouring buildings have recently been repainted, Chhay’s in blue and the cinema in a sickly yellow, to recreate the impression of a lively pre-Khmer Rouge town for Angelina Jolie’s filming of First They Killed My Father.

For 64-year-old Chhay and his wife Choup Somaly, it was a surreal transformation. They remember this street at a time when the bustling scene wasn’t a charade, and the Golden Temple wasn’t a crumbling mess masked by a fresh lick of paint.

In Cambodia in the years before the Khmer Rouge, films were advertised with huge, elaborately painted hoardings. Preah sorya archives
In Cambodia in the years before the Khmer Rouge, films were advertised with huge, elaborately painted hoardings. Preah Sorya archives

As a teenager growing up in Battambang in the 1960s, the cinema was Chhay’s livelihood. From the age of 16 onwards, he was one of a small group of artists employed in the singular pursuit of poster painting: copying a film’s pocket-sized “lobby card” onto large canvases, which were then mounted on the theatre’s facade.

From the late 1960s until 1975, he tailored the rotation of famous faces and fantastical ghouls that gazed down on the streets below – often the public’s only clue as to what to expect from the films on show.

Chhay thinks he is the only surviving practitioner of the genre. “The other artists who made the posters were older than me. It’s only me who is still alive,” he said at his house this week, as Somaly busied herself collecting up old photo albums from around the crowded front room.

The value of his memories (or more often those of Somaly, who jokes that she “remembers for the both of them”) is considerable.

After the Khmer Rouge, only 30 of an estimated 400 films made during Cambodia’s “golden age” of cinema remained intact. And clues as to their accompanying artwork are even rarer. When a film finished screening at the cinema, Chhay would take his canvas down to the river, wash out the powder colours and start again.

Content image - Phnom Penh Post
Preah Sorya archives

Amongst the younger generation, nostalgia for this era reached new heights following the 2011 release of Golden Slumbers – French-Cambodian filmmaker Davy Chou’s rose-tinted telling of Cambodia’s lost cinematic legacy. For the 2013 exhibition Birds of Paradise, artist Kun Sotha and film buffs from the Preah Sorya Group ransacked all available archives to try and recreate the old poster designs. In the absence of almost all originals, they relied on Thai translations and salvaged lobby cards to piece together the style and feel of the time.

Speaking this week, Chou, who curated the exhibition, pondered that there had been “maybe something a little magic” in this pursuit. “I felt it was something to do in order to revive some memories,” he said.

Chhay isn’t prone to the same nostalgia.

“I wasn’t sad to wash out the pictures. It was the normal thing to do to help save money,” he said. In fact, he didn’t even particularly like watching films: “When they distributed the lobby cards in front of my school or house, I was only interested in the pictures,” he said.

His story of becoming an artist is one of remarkable perseverance. Chhay never studied art, but as a teenager he hung about the men working in the cinema until he understood their craft.

It took two years before he was deemed talented enough to join the roster, after which he earned 900 riel per month for his work, a salary that put him well above the average earnings for his age group.

Cambodian films, with their casts of flying pigs, medusa-haired women and monsters, made for rich, kitschy pickings.

When work dried up painting in the 1980s, self-taught musician Moeun Chhay became a music producer.
When work dried up painting in the 1980s, self-taught musician Moeun Chhay became a music producer. Scott Rotzoll

One of Chhay’s biggest coups was for the design of a low-rent film about a ghostly mother and baby. He made a cut-out arm, which was attached to a rope inside the theatre. When workers tugged it, it looked like the woman was rocking her pallid child.

The horror film’s poster became a standalone attraction. “Some people would bring chairs and just sit there outside the cinema to watch the poster move,” he recalled.

During this time, he taught himself music the same way he had learned to paint: by watching musicians and copying what they did.

When Chhay talks about his life, the impression is of a man for whom things seem to go right even when they are going wrong. It was the bombings of the early 1970s that introduced him to Somaly, then a young cloth merchant from Phnom Penh.

A work trip to Battambang was prolonged indefinitely because it was too dangerous to travel home. So instead, she met Chhay, and married him.

Moeun Chhay had hardly touched a brush in decades when he was asked to do two paintings for the Lille3000 art festival in France.
Moeun Chhay had hardly touched a brush in decades when he was asked to do two paintings for the Lille3000 art festival in France. Sovan Philong

Then during the Khmer Rouge, his creative flair afforded him the exact opposite experience to most other artists. When village spies concocted a rumour that he was a pilot and should be killed (“I’d never even been in a plane,” he pointed out evenly) he explained to the commune leader that he was merely a chapei (a traditional stringed instrument) player. The commune leader was delighted by the discovery.

Movie posters’ stylistic roots in Bollywood

According to curator Christian Caujolle, exhibition-goers at Lille3000 were quick to draw comparisons between the two Moeun Chhay canvasses on display and Bollywood films of the same era. Unlike the considered, minimalist tendency of French cinema at the time, Indian films were represented by an evocative, ramshackle collage of significant people and places, painted in the realistic yet garish style that also came to characterise Cambodian pop art in the 1960s. “I will say that aesthetically, they are the same, but the content [in Cambodia] has a specificity linked to Cambodian stories,” Caujolle said. According to experts, the similarities are not coincidental. Rin Chhoum Virak, a member of the Preah Sorya film group and researcher for the 2013 Birds of Paradise poster exhibition, said there was a direct historical line to be drawn between Bollywood film art and Cambodia’s 1960s style. “When Cambodian films started in the 1950s, we didn’t have much of a film industry but we did have foreign films such as Indian films,” he said. “When there were Indian films they drew posters, but not for French films. Then when Cambodian films started, they always drew posters to attract people.” Caujolle suggested that more historical study would help draw out pertinent information about this historical exchange. “In Western countries Indian cinema posters are really popular, but no one knows about them in Cambodia,” he said. “There’s no collector of that kind of work, except some museums of traditional expression.”

Chhay spent the rest of the Democratic Kampuchea era as a musician, playing traditional songs rejigged to glorify Angkar, and even the occasional Sinn Sisamouth and Ros Serey Sothea number for high-ranking officials.

He said he has heard the stories of artists rounded up to “meet the king” only to be shot, and knows he was lucky. But, he cautioned, “not all the Khmer Rouge were bad people.”

In the 1980s, life continued apace. Chhay quickly landed a job with the Ministry of Fine Arts, who gifted him the house next to the Golden Temple Cinema. He resumed painting for a while, but work slowed and then dried up entirely with the advent of commercial printers in Battambang.

No matter. Chhay had already moved on to the more lucrative trade of musical production. He now runs a profitable karaoke-style outfit called Dararoth Music.

This week, he produced a recording on his phone to illustrate their work: two male crooners, with five women swaying coquettishly to the beat behind them. The identical frilly mini-dresses seen in the video were drying on the line outside.

Chhay, for all his skill, has always approached popular culture as a pragmatist. And Dararoth Music occupies strikingly similar territory to Chhay’s golden-age career, bridging the boundaries between art and mass consumerism.

For all their retrospective glamour, Cambodian films of the 1960s were for the most part quickly produced and often almost interchangeable: “pulp fictions” churned out on low budgets.

Last year was the first time that he got a hint of the elevated position his paintings now hold in the popular imagination.

For the Lille3000 exhibition– one of the largest displays of Cambodian art outside the country to date – curator Christian Caujolle commissioned him to paint two new poster canvasses.

“The title of the global project in Lille was Renaissance, and I found it was perfect to ask Chhay to paint again after so many years without touching his brushes,” Caujolle explained over email.

Chhay said he was flattered by the inclusion, which afforded him a sense of the important role he had played in Cambodian pop history.

“I can say that nowadays, they don’t make the posters interesting like we used to,” he mused. “They don’t include lots of pictures. It’s different now.”

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