Cambodian Space Project Documentary Goes Behind the Music

Spanning a four-year period from the inception of the Cambodian Space Project, Marc Eberle’s “Not Easy Rock ‘n’ Roll,” is an illuminating documentary about the evolution of the Khmer-Western fusion band and the fraught relationship between founder Australian Julien Poulson and Cambodian singer Srey Thy.

A former sex worker who grew up idolizing 1960s singer Pan Ron and her contemporaries, Ms. Thy met Mr. Poulson after singing at a karaoke bar in Phnom Penh in 2009.

Srey Thy is depicted in an animated fantasy sequence from 'Not Easy Rock 'n' Roll.'
Srey Thy is depicted in an animated fantasy sequence from ‘Not Easy Rock ‘n’ Roll.’

– Film Review 

A life-long musician and fan of classic Cambodian rock, Mr. Poulson was captivated by the vintage charm of Ms. Thy’s lilting voice. They slept together that night and quickly embarked on a tumultuous musical and romantic partnership.

“Not Easy Rock ‘n’ Roll,” which premiers this weekend as part of the Cambodia International Film Festival, begins mere weeks after the pair’s initial encounter and follows them as they tour Europe and Asia.

“I want to be famous…for all the chickens from Prey Veng who can’t fly away like me,” Ms. Thy says in the film, explaining that it’s not just the sound of Cambodia’s golden era that she’s drawn to, but the relative freedom it represents.

“I want to learn how to be a woman like that,” she says of the feisty and superficially liberated actresses in Norodom Sihanouk’s kitschy ’60s movies that inspire her stage outfits.

But Ms. Thy is also a pragmatist with a young son and impoverished family to support, which throughout the course of the film becomes increasingly frustrated with her helter-skelter life touring foreign lands with the man she fell so quickly in love with.

“He thinks he wants to save me,” Ms. Thy says at one stage, her words hinting at a shifting interpretation of Mr. Poulson’s intentions.

The film avoids taking sides, however, and offers Mr. Poulson ample time to give his perspective as a man who both fell in love and seized an opportunity. When he laughs and says Ms. Thy is becoming a “diva,” it’s with a mixture of pride and frustration.

Mr. Poulson also describes seeing Ms. Thy perform for the first time as like discovering a “Southeast Asian Amy Winehouse,” and though he is referring to her raw talent and humble beginnings, it’s a portentous comment considering that what unfolds is the story of a woman whose dreams of a musical career come true at great emotional cost.

The film contains numerous animated sequences, which while fun, feel superfluous. A few too many sequences, for example, depict Ms. Thy whizzing across a world map aboard a spaceship.

The work of illustrators Tim Huys and Julia Goschke—with help from students from Battambang province’s Phare Ponleu Selpak art school—the animations are inspired by the surrealism of Georges Melies seminal 1902 film “Trip to the Moon,” a fitting stylistic reference point given that a bemused Mr. Poulson at one point describes Ms. Thy as being from “planet Khmer” as a way of explaining their growing disconnect.

With a brisk run time of 75 minutes—to qualify it for television broadcast in the U.K. and Australia, where it screened earlier this year —the film moves at a frenetic pace but manages to deftly contextualize the band’s classic Cambodian rock sounds and the historical relevance of the genre through the use of archival footage and on-screen text.

But it’s when the pace slows down that the cinematography really shines.

A scene filmed in Ms. Thy’s home village during Mr. Poulson’s first visit, where people dance and drink in the moonlight, is presented in slow motion and with a cooler color palette than the rest of the film. It’s brief but beautiful, and wordlessly conveys the power of music to cross cultural barriers— momentarily, at least.

The film culminates with a triumphant performance in Berlin’s famous Hebbel am Ufer theater. Backstage before the gig, Ms. Thy chats with the dancers, who express an admiration for her refusal to follow the Chbab Srey, a traditional Cambodian code of conduct for women and girls still taught in many schools.

“I’ve been imprisoned by love and my family. I want my freedom.” Ms. Thy responds before taking the stage.

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