As Cambodia’s budding film industry kicks into high gear with fresh 2016 additions, AsiaLIFE gives a rundown on the country’s best films to date. Writing by Joanna Mayhew; photography by Charles Fox.
Recently, the Kingdom has been abuzz with all things cinema. The close of 2015 saw the 6th Cambodia International Film Festival – attended by special guest and president of the festival’s honorary committee, Angelina Jolie Pitt – take place in the capital with more than 200 screenings, along with the Phnom Penh International Film Festival and Chaktomuk Short Film Festival.
This year, the country will welcome new additions to its growing repertoire, including Jolie Pitt’s adaptation of Loung Ung’s First They Killed My Father, hallmark documentary on Vann Molyvann, The Man Who Built Cambodia, and Khmer ladyboy comedy, Poppy Goes to Hollywood.
Ahead of the releases, it’s worth temporarily foregoing current reality television obsessions to catch up on these Cambodia-connected classics and recent hits, all of which make the cut.
Lara Croft: Tomb Raider.
The country’s first major blockbuster, this 2001 action film – based on the popular Tomb Raider video games series – sees Lara Croft combat villains to recover powerful artefacts. Starring Jolie Pitt, the film was the start of a long relationship with the country for the actress and director, who holds Cambodian citizenship for her conservation efforts here and adopted her oldest son, Maddox, from Battambang. The motion picture was filmed in Siem Reap’s temples of Bayon, Angkor Thom and Ta Prohm, where flocks of visitors now replicate Lara Croft poses under tree-ensnared ruins. While critics bemoaned its lacking plot, Tomb Raider was a box office success, debuting at number one in its opening weekend, and was the biggest grossing action film with a woman in the lead role – establishing Jolie Pitt as a top Hollywood actress.
The Killing Fields
While Tomb Raider was the first movie filmed in country after the Khmer Rouge, The Killing Fields was the first major picture to show the horrors of Pol Pot’s reign of terror. The celebrated drama is based on the experience of New York Times journalist Sydney Schanberg while covering the war, and his agony at being unable to protect his local representative, Dith Pran. Filmed in neighbouring Thailand and directed by Roland Joffé, the 1984 portrayal of war and friendship won three Academy Awards, and remains relevant today. The film screens at Phnom Penh’s community movie houses daily, so there’s no excuse to miss this one.
The Missing Picture
A more recent portrayal of the Khmer Rouge’s atrocities, this documentary drama combines clay figures and archival footage, as well as haunting narration, to creatively reconstruct and convey the country’s scarred past. Directed by critically acclaimed Cambodian documentary filmmaker Rithy Panh, the French-language film was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the 86th Academy Awards, and won at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival for the Un Certain Regard section. The powerful memoir is grounded in the director’s own experience: Panh’s family was evacuated from Phnom Penh in 1975, and his parents and sisters subsequently died in labour camps from starvation or exhaustion. During the film, the narrator states, “On its own, of course, an image cannot prove mass murder, but it gives us cause for thought, prompts us to meditate, to record history.”
Wish You Were Here
Bringing viewers to modern-day Cambodia, this 2012 Australian mystery thriller reveals the Kingdom from the perspective of Western tourists. The country’s draws and dangers come into full view as one of four friends holidaying in Southeast Asia disappears without a trace. The suspenseful movie, filmed in Australia and local locations, such as Sihanoukville, showcases Joel Edgerton at his best, and is a good reminder to keep your wits about you while traveling.
The Last Reel
From local director Kulikar Sotho, The Last Reel is an impressive new addition to Cambodia’s portfolio. The Khmer-language film successfully portrays contemporary Cambodians’ struggle to both deal with and move on from the past. Shot entirely in country, the drama tells the story of a lost film that reveals different versions of the truth as a teenager attempts to uncover and recreate it. The film has been chosen to represent Cambodia for the Foreign Language Film Award at the 88th Oscars next month.
City of Ghosts
Co-written, directed by and starring Matt Dillon, this 2002 drama portrays a con artist required to travel to Cambodia to collect his share of money from a scam. Shot in Phnom Penh, Battambang, Kep, Oudong and Bokor mountain, the film – which incorporated expats, Cambodians and even backpackers – covers still-pervasive issues of government corruption and in-country Russian mafias.
Same Same But Different
This German film, shot in 2009, is one of many attempting to capture the capital’s seedy underbelly. Based on a true story, the movie portrays the unlikely love story between a young German traveller and a Phnom Penh bargirl. Dealing with themes of prostitution, sex tourism and HIV, the movie, shot in Cambodia, Germany and Malaysia, manages to remain unsentimental yet moving. Controversially, the film cast a Thai woman in the lead role of Cambodian bargirl, Sreykeo, citing a lack of local actors. In that aspect at least, times have certainly changed in the country, which now boasts serious emerging talent.