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Relics of Cambodia’s cinematic golden age

Seng Chamnan, better known as Ta Koy, admits he is ‘not sure’ what to do with the piles of old film equipment in his home.
Seng Chamnan, better known as Ta Koy, admits he is ‘not sure’ what to do with the piles of old film equipment in his home. Charlotte Pert

Relics of Cambodia’s cinematic golden age

In Battambang, the shells of two remaining pre-Khmer Rouge cinemas still hold treasures – and their names are Tes Saloan and Ta Koy

Seen from the street, Battambang’s dirty yellow Golden Temple Cinema is a largely charmless husk of functional modernism. Inside, paint has faded, seats have crumbled and light falls patchily through the ceiling. There is rubbish strewn throughout, partially obscured by thick dust. But the man who lets us in is optimistic. “Have you come to shoot another film?” he asks.

The cinema has been abandoned for the past seven years. But it was given a new lease of life when it became a location for filming of The Last Reel last June. In the film – which had its Cambodian premiere earlier this month at the Cambodian International Film Festival – a young woman embarks on a quest to heal family wounds after wandering into an old cinema and chancing across the caretaker watching a film starring her mother.

Ta Koy examines a spool of old film.
Ta Koy examines a spool of old film. Charlotte Pert

In large part, it’s a film about Cambodia’s complicated love affair with cinema itself, and director Sotho Kulikar says that finding a location that could carry the weight of those memories was of the utmost importance. “The cinema itself is a central character in my story,” she explains. “And as soon as I walked into this cinema, I felt so much history.”

But you don’t have to rely on crumbling paintwork to piece together the Golden Temple’s past: its history lives on in the person of Tes Saloan, the man who carries the keys to the building and was once its projectionist. In an industry largely obliterated by the Khmer Rouge, the sprightly 61-year-old is a rarity – one of a small number of surviving cinema professionals who worked during the “golden age” of Cambodian film in the 1960s and 1970s.

Saloan was 16 when he was first taught to use the projection equipment. “I loved art and film, so I learned fast,” he says. At the time, the Golden Temple was one of six cinemas in Battambang. Tickets were cheap, and his 500-seat auditorium was regularly packed, with audiences sitting spellbound by the strange monsters of Khmer legend on screen.

The cinema was closed when the Khmer Rouge took control of the country in 1975 but was reopened in the 1980s. For a while, it was used as a performing arts venue and then as a cinema again – this time with modern LCD technology – from the mid-’90s until it closed its doors for good in 2006 or 2007 (Saloan can’t remember for sure). “I was not happy to lose this job, but no one was looking after the cinema and I can’t preserve it myself,” he says.

The dirty yellow exterior of the Golden Temple cinema in Battambang.
The dirty yellow exterior of the Golden Temple cinema in Battambang. Charlotte Pert

When Kulikar discovered Saloan’s history, she hired him as part of the production team. “He never stopped smiling,” she recalls. “And every morning he bought me a chicken egg from the countryside to give me strength.” True to Kulikar’s word, Saloan grins non-stop when talking about the experience of the shoot. “It’s my hand you see in the film because the actor couldn’t turn the old projector fast enough,” he explains.

Of the six cinemas that once served Battambang, four have been demolished or converted. By a strange coincidence, the two still standing are both on Street 2. A short walk from the Golden Temple is its one time rival, the slightly smaller Battambang Cinema. Like Saloan, the cinema’s projectionist has not strayed far from his former workplace. Seng Chamnan, known locally as Ta Koy, still lives in the adjacent house.

Whereas Saloan speaks glowingly of the golden age, Ta Koy’s fondest memories are from the 1980s. It’s not an era much feted in the annals of Cambodian cultural history: domestic production was in the gutter and the only films allowed were those imported from communist countries. But Ta Koy says he relished the joy that audiences found even in these epics of socialist realism.

“People still came to watch and enjoy what we showed for them, because they just woke up from Khmer Rouge regime,” he explains.

The Golden Temple cinema, where much of The Last Reel was shot, has seen better days.
The Golden Temple cinema, where much of The Last Reel was shot, has seen better days. Charlotte Pert

He grins as he recalls certain tricks deployed at the time. Censorship didn’t apply with the same rigour to soundtracks, and the men in charge of dubbing often took it upon themselves to liven up the films for local audiences. “The films were dubbed with jokes and funny sounds in Khmer,” he says.

But certain boundaries were not to be transgressed: Ta Koy recalls being instructed by his manager to stop overlaying films with the romantic music of old Khmer classics. And unlike the caretaker in The Last Reel, he never dared screen golden age films even when he found them. “We could not show these films even in secret places.”

In the 1990s, restrictions were lifted but, like the Golden Temple, the Battambang Cinema was struggling from a lack of serious investment and competition from television. It closed later that decade. Using the projection equipment from the old cinema, Ta Koy built a mobile projection unit and travelled round the country screening the old Khmer films he had bought in Thailand. Today, he runs a small business building and fixing amplifiers in his workshop-cum-convenience store.

“At first I felt so sad and full of regret about losing [the old technology],” he says. “But I felt it was better and more normal to lose the old things because if I tried to preserve it, people might say that I was crazy. I just kept a few of those old things to show my children.”

“A few” is perhaps an understatement. In a room above his shop, he throws opens the shutters to reveal a chest-height mound of old electronics: broken projectors, half-wound reels and motherboards with protruding wires. “I’m not sure what [to] do with it all,” he admits.

Light spills through the crumbling roof of the Golden Temple cinema.
Light spills through the crumbling roof of the Golden Temple cinema. Charlotte Pert

Like Saloan, filming of The Last Reel afforded Ta Koy a renewed sense of purpose, when bits of his equipment were carted up the road for use by the production team. And two years ago, his cinema was once again a flurry of glamorous activity, when it was used to host an early screening of Davy Chou’s Golden Slumbers – a film that took a fond look back at the golden age of Cambodian cinema.

But more forward-looking ideas for the theatres remain in short supply. It’s hard to envisage how their crumbling interiors could be modernised without obliterating the fragile remnants of their charm. Kulikar points out that the wood-panelled ceiling of the Golden Temple cinema was so dangerous that they had to fix it before re-breaking it for the shoot.

Both buildings belong to the government and are looked after by the Ministry of Culture in Battambang, which would not comment on their plans for the cinemas when contacted for this story.

For the Battambang Cinema, tentative hope lies with Phare Ponleu Selpak. Vincent Buso, who works for Phare’s visual and applied arts program, is toying with the idea of getting a long-term lease on the property and using it to screen films to the art school’s growing number of cinematography students.

Tes Saloan was a projectionist during Cambodian cinema’s ‘golden age’.
Tes Saloan was a projectionist during Cambodian cinema’s ‘golden age’. Charlotte Pert

It’s hard to see exactly what state the cinema is in because there’s no natural light, and the woman who minds the entrance is unsure where the generator is or if it works. But shining a torch around, Buso seems optimistic. “We’d have to fix some things, but it’s good to keep it,” he says.

What’s clear is that the historical weight carried by the two dilapidated buildings is not simply the nostalgic projection of dewy-eyed outsiders. Kulikar recalls one day on set when she was filming a scene with the actor playing the old projectionist. “As we finished, I could hear someone was emotional behind me. I turned round and it was Mr Saloan,” she says. “It was confronting him about what he has gone through.”

It’s an anecdote that could have sprung straight from one the romantic tales that censorship forbade in the 1980s, but Kulikar says that everyone she met who lived around Street 2 had similarly powerful memories.

“Everyone has a story about how their grandmothers used to come and watch the movies here. You could make it into a whole other film.”


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