Saturday, October 24, 2009

Cambodian films have their Golden Reawakening

The past week has seen a resurgence in interest for Cambodian cinema, thanks to an event at Phnom Penh's riverside Chinese House, Golden Reawakening, which has been showing classic Khmer films from the 1960s and '70s.

The exhibition wraps up tomorrow with two films by Tea Lim Koun -- an early version of Puos Keng Kang (of which there was a Thai-Cambodian remake in 2001) and A Chey Neang Krot.

The films are from a golden age of Cambodian culture, a time of incredibly progressive and unmatched arts that encompassed cinema, architecture, fashion and a lively rock 'n' roll scene. But all that came to an end in 1975 when the communist Khmer Rouge took over and sought to remake Cambodia as an agrarian utopia, expelling people from the cities into work camps and engaging in genocide that targeted artists and scholars. Around 2 million people are thought to have killed in executions and torture or died from starvation and overwork. Here's more from Australian Broadcasting:

The walls of the exhibition centre, the Chinese House in Phnom Penh, are hung with black and white photographs of Cambodian actors and actresses, directors, classic film scenes and exotic locations.

There are also gaudy and colourful film posters showing acts of celluloid bravery, tragedy and that old film favourite - love.

The exhibition's curator, Davy Chou, 26, says the purpose is to introduce young Cambodians to a neglected aspect of their cultural history and to remind the older generation of the happiness of those times.

But there is sadness. Mr Chou says that of the top 10 actors, only two could be found today - the legendary Dy Saveth and Virak Dara, who is also in France.

Mr Chou's grandfather, who disappeared in 1969, was one of the era's leading film producers. The young man was born in France.

Director Tea Lim Koun was recently rediscovered alive and well in Canada, according to Kon Khmer Koun Khmer, which has been covering the festival.

And there's critic and scholar Tilman Baumgaertel and his Southeast Asian Film Studies Institute. Now relocated from the Philippines to Phnom Penh, Golden Reawakening is his domain.

The screenings have been packed, with audiences sitting on the floor of the Chinese House gallery. And more and more folks have turned up during the week, including grannies clad in the ubiquitous street wear of Phnom Penh -- pajamas.

Mr. Baumgaertel has reviews up for Lay Nguong Heng's Tip Soda Chan, King-Father Norodom Sihanouk's Crepuscule, Yvon Hem's Sovannahong, Biv Chhay Leang's Rattanavong and Uong Kan Thuok's Pel Del Trov Zum (A Time to Cry) and Chhea Nuk's Panhcha Por Tevy.

Among the highlights is Ly Bun Yim's remarkably well-preserved Puthisen Neagn Kongrey (12 Sisters). A snip:

The story is based on an ancient Khmer myth: A king marries twelve orphaned sisters, but his thirteenth wife (who is really a giant witch, who has turned herself into a beautiful princess) fools him into believing him that they are the witches. The misled king has the twelve sisters blinded (in a scene that makes the opening sequence of An Andalusian Dog look like kid´s stuff) and throws them into a cave, where they bear his children, which they are forced to eat as they have no other food. And that is just the first 30 minutes!

Some of the films can be found on YouTube, including a bit of 12 Sisters, which Mr. Baumgaertel says has parts of which aren't shown in the version of 12 Sisters he saw. It's embedded below. Enjoy.

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