Cambodia’s Hollywood Rebirth
The Cambodian film industry, reeling from the tragic events of the not-too-distant past, is making incredible moves forward. With a rise in the production of original films, touching scenes that deal with issues Cambodian audiences will recognize, and contributions from both local and foreign filmmakers, the nation’s film scene is steadily reaping recognition.
In the 1960s, Cambodia experienced its “Golden Age” of cinema. Several production companies were in operation, and movie theatres were being built throughout the country. More than 300 Khmer films were made in a decade when cinema tickets were relatively affordable and cinema-going was popular across all social classes in the Kingdom. By 1970, Cambodian films such as Pous Keng Kong were not just popular at home, but had gained recognition abroad.
After the Khmer Rouge years, cinema in Cambodia suffered from the tragic events of history. From 1979 onwards, film production had a slow recovery and didn’t immediately rise to its former popularity. Film audiences shrank and cinema lost the public’s attention.
7th Cambodian International Film Festival
Skipping forward to this decade, we can see a return to the international acclaim Cambodian films won in the past.
This March, the 7th Cambodia International Film Festival took place in Phnom Penh. The celebration of Cambodian film gathered both local and foreign filmmakers to showcase their talents. Screenings were open to the public, and hundreds of people descended on the cinemas of Phnom Penh to partake in the joys of the silver screen. 133 films were shown, both Cambodian and foreign, fiction and documentary, live action and animation.
The goal of the festival was to give exposure to the Cambodian film industry, and it’s becoming clear that this is an industry once again on the rise. Reviewing the movies on offer, it seems that the 21st Century has taken Cambodia back to its golden years of international recognition for original cinema.
First They Killed My Father
First They Killed My Father is a historical drama based on a memoir by Loung Ung, First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers. Acclaimed Cambodian director Rithy Panh produced the film.
Loung Ung was five years old when the Khmer Rouge assumed power over Cambodia in 1975. Forced from her family’s home in Phnom Penh, she was trained as a soldier while her siblings were sent to labor camps. Setting it apart from other historical renditions of the Khmer Rouge era, the film follows her journey from a child’s point of view.
The writer says on her blog, “This is a story, not just of my family, but of a nation. I would not trust just anybody to make this film.” But she put her trust in Angelina Jolie, a friend of Ung’s since Jolie travelled to Cambodia as a UN Goodwill Ambassador in 2001. “Angie is giving a gift to this country.”
“If you know nothing about Cambodia, and you see this film, you won’t just think these are people that suffered through a war. You will think, these are really interesting people,” said Jolie. “Their roots and their personality, their humor, their love of music, their culture – it’s all of that. It has to be, in the end, this love letter to Cambodian people.”
An original Cambodian film directed by Khmer-French filmmaker Davy Chou, Diamond Island is the tale of young people to work and play on Phnom Penh’s Koh Pich.
Two brothers, Bora and Solei, have not seen each other for a long time. Bora is a construction worker on Diamond Island, helping to build a sparkling and stylish development project. Solei goes to the island and meets Bora by coincidence, and entices Bora away from his life of hard labor.
In the film, the realities of Cambodian youth are exposed, from love and friendship to scandal and spontaneity. The young characters are easily influenced, and have to endure the misery that is brought on by their surrounding environment, and the anti-social debauchery that follows.
Winning the Critics Week Grand Prize in Cannes and having been screened internationally in 20 countries, Diamond Island has already secured its place as a Cambodian classic.
Almost without precedent in Cambodia, Jailbreak proves itself to be a an action film that could rival Hollywood blockbusters.
Police are looking for the infamous leader of the notorious Butterfly gang. Thinking they have found him, they arrest Playboy, a hapless gang member. As he is led to jail, he offers up the identity of the real leader, Madame Butterfly. Enraged at having been given away, she puts a bounty on Playboy’s head that has his fellow prison inmates dying to get their hands on him. In the ensuing prison riot, police officers have to fight the inmates to protect their key witness. In the meantime, Madame Butterfly and her henchwomen make their way to the prison to find Playboy.
With an action-packed plot full of twists and turns, it’s no wonder Jailbreak has earned itself an international release. We asked the director, Jimmy Henderson, about the movie.
“I wanted to create something a bit different than what Cambodian people were used to. The film’s producer, Loy Te, and I came up with the idea for Jailbreak back in 2015. We wanted to make a film with local flavor, combining high standards with production value. The main idea was to help the Cambodian film industry move forward.”
The film was shot in an abandoned building. “We found the place over Jroy Jong Var Bridge. There has been an abandoned school there for ten years. It was full of old wood and dust and it was perfect for creating a prison.”
“I feel that this film is a milestone for Cambodia, a stepping-stone.” But it was not without some criticism. “Some critics said, ‘Oh! Why did you make this film? You spent so much time and money…’ But we showed audiences that we can achieve huge things in Cambodia since we have many talented people.”
His inspiration for the film came from his love of cinema. “I’ve been watching movies since I was young, but I actually majored psychology. Sounds like a joke, right? I am self-taught in filmmaking.”
As for the future of film in Cambodia, Henderson says that this is a turning point. “I think that now the trend of films is totally changing, from horror movies to action movies like Jailbreak. We’re trying to make different content, inspire audiences to see different things. Young Cambodian producers have so much potential. Eventually, Cambodia is going to shine bright on the international stage.”
BY: Muth Chanvatey