Transcending a difficult past: Cambodian cinema

A still from The Missing Picture

A still from The Missing Picture

Transcending a difficult past: Cambodian cinema

06 March 2014

By Daniel Mattes

Cambodia’s dark past of conflict and mass violence have long provided a striking context worthy of documentary depiction and analysis.  Cambodian cinema, however, holds culturally established roots that transcend the history of its difficult period under the Khmer Rouge and the subsequent civil war.

Contemporary Cambodia is witnessing a resurgence of cinematic culture as younger generations discover the art of filmmaking and aim to express themselves through the motion picture.  Yet the industry is still widely ignored, with a population that prefers Western films or domestic Hollywood-style romance, action and horror films. Nonetheless, Cambodia’s rich history of the arts has the capacity to transform the nation’s relationship to cinema, beyond the prism of conflict and in contrast to the recently popular foreign trends.

Even before the arrival of cameras and films, Cambodia’s centuries-old tradition of shadow puppetry had long established the art of the moving image.  So close are the cinema’s ties to this traditional art form that a single Khmer word for trick, ‘kon’, signifies them both.  In either case, the arts were long seen as representations of reality, new versions of common experiences or exciting tales of action and romance.

The French colonial regime introduced filmmaking to the country in 1909. First utilised as entertainment for Westerners, cinema soon offered a useful tool for colonial authorities to provide ‘moral education’ to the Khmer public.  It was not until the late 1940s and early 1950s, however, that local Cambodian filmmakers began to produce works of their own.

Following independence in 1953, Cambodian society developed its own vibrant culture of cinema.  Many of the country’s first and foremost directors studied overseas, including Roeum Sophon, Ieu Pannakar and Sun Bun Ly, who established the country’s first production company.

By the 1960s, with the construction of new movie theatres throughout the country (more than 30 cinemas existed in Phnom Penh alone) and the development of production companies, the nation entered its Golden Age of cinema.  Between 1960 and 1975, nearly 400 movies were produced in Cambodia, by Cambodian directors and with Cambodian stars.  Director Tea Lim Koun made two of the period’s classic films, Lia Haoy Duong Dara (Goodbye My Star) and Pous Keng Kang (The Snake King’s Wife), the latter of which met success abroad in Thailand.  Some of Phnom Penh’s largest movie houses were truly grand palaces of cinema, including the Soriya, the Phnom Pich, the Eden, the Bokor, and the Hemakcheat.  The first feature film in colour was produced in 1960 and titled Phka Rik Phka Ruy (Blooming Flower, Withering Flower) and received wide critical praise.

A Thai promotional poster for Pous Keng Kang (1970s)

A Thai promotional poster for Pous Keng Kang (1970s)

The King of Cambodia, Norodom Sihanouk, had acted at a young age and always held a passion for cinema.  Starting in 1966, he became deeply dedicated to his own filmmaking and producing.  Milton Osborne writes in a 1994 biography that the king’s personal hobby developed into an obsession that distracted him from the country’s increasingly difficult situation as war encroached from neighbouring Vietnam.  Apsara was the first of nine films that Sihanouk made between 1966 and his overthrow in 1970.  Osborne criticises these films for their “embarrassingly amateurish standard, despite the puffery that surrounded their presentation in Phnom Penh.”  In 1968, the King started the first Phnom Penh International Film Festival, which saw only one more installation the following year.  At both events, Sihanouk’s film entries won the grand prize, with his 1969 entry – ironically titled Crépuscule (Twilight) – placed in a special class with no other competition.

Following Sihanouk’s removal in 1970 and as the Khmer Rouge insurgency developed in the Cambodian countryside, the government heavily relied on the tax collected on movie tickets in Phnom Penh’s popular cinemas to fund its military.  The capital’s cinemas stayed open and filled until the eve of the Khmer Rouge takeover in April 1975, with the population (now made up of more than a million rural refugees fleeing American bombings and Khmer Rouge killings) seeking a temporary escape from an increasingly desperate situation.  With the takeover by the Khmer Rouge, the new regime abolished all modern institutions including property, currency, religion and the film industry.  A few of the country’s most famous filmmakers and actors fled; others survived the four-year regime of collectivised agriculture, but most were murdered for being symbols of Western culture or they simply died from the regime’s arduous conditions.

After Vietnamese forces liberated and occupied the country in early 1979, Phnom Penh reopened its movie houses.  Yet the destruction of the movie industry had by then ruined the archives of domestic films, and the country’s cinemas could only show films from Vietnam and the Eastern Bloc.  Local filmmaking took off again in 1987, and by 1991 the industry reached a peak similar to the Golden Age of the 1960s.  Cinemas were overfilled with a clientele eager to escape ongoing civil strife and to experience romantic sentiments after more than three years of a virtual ban on emotion or affection under the Khmer Rouge.

The economic liberalisation of the 1990s, however, quickly brought an end to this revival, as Thai and Chinese films or even television provided greater technical and narrative quality.

Today Khmer films are generally romantic melodramas or horror movies.  With a stronger middle class that now prefers to watch movies at home on their televisions, computers and tablets, than on the big screen, many of Phnom Penh’s cinemas have shut down and become karaoke bars and car dealerships.  Artistic weakness and the lack of commercial knowledge among producers have handicapped Khmer cinema, but there have been signs of a resurgent film culture in recent years.

Through his multiple memoirs of experiences under the Khmer Rouge, Rithy Panh has ably displayed a clear knowledge of film technique and commercial expertise.  His founding and operation of the Bophana Audiovisual Resource Center in Phnom Penh has catalysed the development of young filmmakers and provided archival research in the recovery of forgotten Khmer films.  Yet, even as Rithy Panh’s film The Missing Picture makes the rounds at the Oscars and film festivals, including the Asia House Pan-Asia Film Festival, other Khmer productions have faced censorship from the government.

Nowadays filmmakers nonetheless are eager to practice and develop the craft of cinema.  Davy Chou, a young Khmer filmmaker, has established the Kon Khmer Koun Khmer (Khmer films, Khmer generations, also known as 4K) film collective to train and support the work of young directors. Chou’s recent documentary work, Golden Slumbers (2013), pieces together the history of Khmer cinema through interviews with some of the only surviving directors, producers and actors from the Golden Age.

Many of the young directors at 4K speak of a return to Cambodia’s cinematic past.  In doing so, they aim to pivot the nation’s culture towards a more innovative and impressive future.

Asia House screened Rithy Panh’s Oscar-nominated film The Missing Picture on Wednesday, 5 March, 2014 as part of the Asia House Pan-Asia Film Festival.

Daniel Mattes is a postgraduate student in the programme on Global Politics and Global Civil Society at the London School of Economics and Political Science, with a specific emphasis on Southeast Asian politics, human rights and development. He previously lived and worked in Phnom Penh, Cambodia as a monitor of the ongoing Khmer Rouge Tribunal. While there, he developed an interest in the country’s politics and its rich cultural heritage.