Monday, December 21, 2015

LPFF 2015 review: Spotlight on Cambodia

The Cambodian Space Project: Not Easy Rock 'n' Roll

Cambodia's constant struggle to reconcile its bloody Khmer Rouge past with the ancient legacy of Angkor and the push for modernity in the 21st century were common threads running through five movies at the sixth Luang Prabang Film Festival, which made Cambodia the subject of its first “Spotlight”. It showed there is more to Cambodian cinema than the works of its multi-award-winning veteran leading director Rithy Panh.

Curated in part by Sok Visal, Cambodia’s “Motion Picture Ambassador” to the Luang Prabang fest, the Spotlight devoted a full day to the country’s re-emerging cinema movement, with a diverse selection of four films. The line-up included the documentaries The Cambodian Space Project: Not Easy Rock ’n’ Roll and Still I Strive, martial-arts action in Hanuman and melodrama in The Last Reel. Shown on another day was a fifth Cambodian entry, the cult crime-comedy Gems on the Run, co-directed by Visal.

Cambodia’s “code of women’s conduct”, masked killers and arranged marriages were among the common themes linking the films.

Still I Strive

Referenced in at least three of the entries, that book that holds that Cambodian women should be polite, quiet and dutiful, is promptly tossed out by domineering female protagonists. In Not Easy Rock ’n’ Roll, a Phnom Penh bargirl undergoes a transformation from a mouse-like figure afraid of her own voice to a tigress-like diva rocker who could teach a thing or two to Cookie Lyon of TV’s Empire. In The Last Reel, a teenage girl jumps off the back of her gangster boyfriend’s motorbike to take up the mantle of movie producer and actress as she tries to reconstruct the missing reel of a 1970s historical epic. And in Gems on the Run, a plucky gun moll chooses love, and falls for the movie’s unlikely hero, a portly police officer who wants to be a singer.

A masked vigilante is out for revenge in Hanuman, which brings Cambodia’s ancient Bokator “pounding a lion” martial art out of the shadows. And it’s masked men who rob an armored car in Gems on the Run. Meanwhile, both the heroine in The Last Reel and the plus-sized leading man of Gems on the Run are seeking to escape from pending marriages arranged by social-climbing parents.

More martial arts are on display in the jawdropping and surprising documentary Still I Strive, which covers the orphan schoolchildren of the National Action Culture Association, an organization run by veteran actress Peng Phan. Having lost her own family during the Khmer Rouge years, she and her husband devote their lives to teaching arts to the orphans. With heartbreaking individual profiles of students, showing the hardships they faced in broken homes to a life of love and learning at the orphanage, the film follows their efforts to perform for the country’s arts-and-culture patron, Princess Bopha Devi.

Directed by Adam Pfleghaar and A. Todd Smith, Still I Strive has these remarkable youngsters acting in full-fledged dramatic segments, following a parallel quest in ancient times, in which their skills in music, dance, storytelling and stage combat are used to full effect. It's amazing.

The gritty Hanuman, meanwhile, is set in contemporary Phnom Penh, where a masked vigilante rises up to challenge the country’s culture of impunity and take revenge on criminals who killed his father. The masked man is also reunited with his estranged brother, a police officer who has been secretly trying to bring his father’s killers to justice himself. Directed by Italian filmmaker Jimmy Henderson, Hanuman is clearly inspired by The Raid, which vividly brought Indonesia’s pencak silat martial arts to world screens. Along with nods to Thailand’s Tony Jaa and Ong-Bak, Hanuman also revels in the lurid images of Italy’s spaghetti westerns and giallo slashers. It's not going to do for Cambodian action cinema what the The Raid did for its stars (who turn up in the new Star Wars), but it is the start of something, and I hope the Hanuman gang will regroup to make more of these types of films.

The Cambodian Space Project and The Last Reel both dealt with the vibrant Cambodian pop culture of the 1970s. Under the patronage of Prince Norodom Sihanouk, himself a multi-hyphenate musician, producer, director and star of his own movies, Cambodia’s cinematic golden age was paralleled by a rollicking music scene, which emulated American rock ’n’ roll. Both scenes were brought to an abrupt end in 1975, when the Khmer Rouge took over, emptied the cities and put the populace to work making the country into an agrarian utopia. Intellectuals and artists didn’t fit into that scheme, and were targets for persecution and death.

The Last Reel
The forces of music and film combined in The Cambodian Space Project: Not Easy Rock ’n’ Roll, which surveys the resurgence of Cambodian rock and its revival under an unusual band, the Cambodian Space Project, which began in 2009 when Australian pop-artist and musician Julien Poulson heard the extraordinary voice of bargirl Srey Thy performing karaoke. The two had little in common but music, but it was enough.

The band is similar to another outfit, the U.S.-based Dengue Fever, which were featured on the soundtrack to Matt Dillon’s 2002 made-in-Cambodia drama City of Ghosts and have been the subject of their own documentary. But while that band’s frontwoman Chhom Nimol was influenced by the slain 1970s Cambodian singer Ros Sereysothea, the Cambodian Space Project’s Thy has taken the more earthy and grounded vocalist Pan Ron has her major influence.

Directed by German Mark Eberle, The Cambodian Space Project: Not Easy Rock ’n’ Roll follows the band’s journey from the bars to Phnom Penh to music clubs in Sydney, Paris and Hong Kong. Clips include the band’s landmark performance at the Cambodia International Film Festival, providing live musical accompaniment to Georges Melies’ 1902 science-fiction epic A Trip to the Moon, the style of which was emulated by Cambodian filmmakers in the 1970s and by Eberle in fantastic animation sequences that imagined the photogenic Thy as an actress in an Angkorian sci-fi epic. Making the film turned out to be an epic undertaking for Eberle, who at one point was drafted to play bass in the band in order to keep both the band and his film project going.

It was a hit with viewers at the Luang Prabang Film Festival's daytime venue, who gave it the festival’s first Audience Choice Award.

Cambodia’s lost cinematic golden age, artfully covered in French-Cambodian director Davy Chou’s Golden Slumbers, unspools further in The Last Reel, a handsomely mounted melodrama that was the country’s official submission to next year’s Academy Awards. Directed by Kulikar Sotho, who rose to prominence as a location supervisor on Angelina Jolie’s made-in-Cambodia action romp Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, The Last Reel follows a young woman who discovers old film reels in a dilapidated Phnom Penh movie palace and realizes that the beautiful actress in the movie is her mother. Secrets of her family’s Khmer Rouge past surface as the young women sets out to recreate the movie’s missing final reel, with help from a motley crew of her biker boyfriend, the theater's elderly projectionist and film students.

Gems on the Run

The Last Reel strained my brain with its soap-opera leanings and a time-travelling story that omitted an entire generation between the Khmer Rouge era and the teenagers of today, whose grandparents, not parents, would have been Khmer Rouge cadre and captives. But for reasons of sentimentality, nostalgia and, I suppose, vanity, there was a compression in time that took away from the weight of the film's dramatic heft.

I liked Gems on the Run better, and I told Sok Visal so at one point during the fest. He thought I was kidding, but then he doesn't know me very well. Directed by Visal and his French friend Quentin Clausin, Gems on the Runs is exactly the type of film I actually enjoy, with its sprawling, shaggy-dog tale of a portly police officer who wants to be a singer getting mixed up with an estranged childhood friend, his ladyfriend and stolen diamonds. It is, essentially, a Coen Bros farce made in Cambodia. Visal, whose family made their escape to Thailand and then France during the Khmer Rouge era and made his return to Cambodia in 1993 to produce music, is a first-time filmmaker with Gems. The film was something of a flop on commercial release, though the soundtrack did well. It's got a cult following, of which I'm now a member. Visal, for his part, wants to do a horror film next, and I can't wait to see it.

The rotund leading man, Cheky Athiporn, was a photographer before he got put in front the camera for his eye-popping star turn in Gems on the Run.

Other actors provided more connections between the films in Luang Prabang's Spolight. Among them was actress Ma Rynet, star of The Last Reel who also appears in Hanuman. And the girl’s mother (or should it be her grandmother?) is portrayed by Dy Saveth, a Golden Age star. Saveth, who famously survived the Khmer Rouge era because she missed a Thai Airways flight from Bangkok to Phnom Penh in 1975, also appears in Cambodian Space Project, imparting advice to the budding diva Thy.

Further talent ties are cemented by the appearance of hard-working actor Rous Mony, who plays the sneering villain in Hanuman, The Last Reel and Gems. I liked to think he was also lurking the background in Space Project and Still I Strive.

Here's Wise Kwai's ratings, for those keeping score:

The Cambodian Space Project: Not Easy Rock 'n' Roll: 4/5
Hanuman: 3/5
Still I Strive: 5/5
The Last Reel: 2/5
Gems on the Run: 4/5

Sok Visal talks about Cambodian cinema with Cambodian Space Project director Mark Eberle. Wise Kwai photo
(Adapted from an article in The Nation)

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