Sunday, February 5, 2012

Lifescapes 2012 reviews: Golden Slumbers, Art of Freedom shorts

Cambodia's Golden Age of cinema lasted just 15 years, starting in 1960, and was at its height in 1975 when the country's amazing pop-culture scene was abruptly and violently shuttered under the deadly Khmer Rouge. Cinemas were closed and actors and filmmakers were considered "enemies of the people". Some of those who survived fled to places like France, which is where young director Davy Chou, making his debut feature with the documentary Golden Slumbers (Le Sommeil D’Or), comes from.

Chou,  the grandson of Van Chann, a prominent Cambodian producer in the 1960s and 1970s, deftly mixes talking-head interviews with old movie clips, photos and images of the old cinemas and studios as they appear today. Interviewees include screen siren Dy Saveth, who's still in Phnom Penh giving acting lessons and talking about the old days to anyone who'll listen. Others are the avuncular Ly Bun Yim as well as Huy Vathana and Ly You Sreang.

Movie titles like Screaming Gibbon, Snake Lady and Snake Man are mentioned in a conversation between cinephiles that takes place in a car as it bumps along a Cambodian dirt road and into the capital.

Former studio owner Yvon Hem reveals his past life to his children – a second family started after his first died during the KR era – and the youngsters wonder why dad never told them he was a producer. But it's too painful to remember, he tells them, as he surveys the location of his old studio, now apparently being turned into an outdoor beer bar.

It's these visits to the old haunts of Cambodia's cinematic heyday that are most poignant in Golden Slumbers. A love ballad from one of the old movies plays while the camera pans around the room of a karaoke parlor, while men clink glasses with young women. The joint used to be one of Phnom Penh's movie palaces. And remember, the rock music of the era by singers like Sinn Sisamouth and Ros Serey Sothea. Those jangling surf-rock sounds were also part of the movies. Another former cinema is a tenement, home to more than 100 squatter families living among the ruins. Pink bougainvilla petals blow across the pavement as another filmmaker talks about the lost era. Another interview is offset by the spark from a construction laborer's arc-welding torch.

Most of the films from Cambodia's Golden Age are lost, though there are various clips and ephemera to be found. Since the late 1990s and early 2000s, Cambodian filmmakers have struggled to restart a once-vital industry in the face of cheaply produced karaoke videos and TV variety shows. It's filmmakers like Davy Chou and Chhay Bora, whose Khmer Rouge family drama Lost Loves also played in the Lifescapes Southeast Asian Film Festival and has opened in Phnom Penh cinemas, who, by reassessing and seeking to reconcile their country's past, stand as symbols of hope for Cambodia's cinematic future.

In addition to the Lifescapes festival, where it played twice, Golden Slumbers was also shown this past weekend at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival.

The Lifescapes Southeast Asian Film Festival presented a selection from the historic Art of Freedom Film Festival held in late December-early January in Rangoon. Organized by none other than newly freed democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi along with outspoken comedian, filmmaker and formerly jailed political activist Zarganar, it was the first "free" film festival held in Burma, which is undergoing democratic reforms after decades of brutal military dictatorship.

Three shorts, all with the filmmakers there for a Q&A, were presented.

Min Htin KoKo Gyi, a co-organizer of the Art of Freedom festival, directed Uninterruptedness, in which the Burmese script of one of his poems about death and the circle of life is mixed with images.

Click in Fear by Sai Kyaw Khaing, which won the best documentary award at the Art of Freedom fest is about a photographer who has to leave Burma after his photos of the 2007 uprising by monks in the "Saffron Revolution" were used in the international press. The short has been presented before in the 2009 World Film Festival of Bangkok, but I think this was a slightly longer and re-edited version.

The highlight of the program was Rope, a 6-minute drama that won the Best Short Film Award at the Art of Freedom fest. Director Min Thaike said he wanted to present the daily lives of residents in Rangoon hi-rises, who've developed a system of ropes that they use to pull things up to their apartments. The ropes are used for items delivered daily, like newspapers. The main character in Rope has his breakfast delivered – a bag of milky tea and fried bread snacks. But pulling the vittles up to his ledge proves difficult when it gets snagged along the way, and there are hungry kittens in pursuit.

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