Dy Saveth is still recognized in Phnom Penh’s markets for her starring roles in the tearjerker movies of the 1960s.
“Stallholders tell me how much they wept at my films, and then insist on giving me a free gift for the tears they shed,” she said, recalling how her roles in sentimental dramas had particular appeal for the middle class cinema-goers of then-Prince Norodom Sihanouk’s regime. She is one of only a handful of actors from the early years of Cambodian cinema still in the country.
The 54-year-old actress, later dubbed “Asia’s film queen,” was famed for her ability to sob on cue. In her first film, “The Boat of Life” (1960), the director asked a young, timid Dy Saveth to weep over the death of an older relative. Shy and insecure about her abilities on-screen, she feared instant tears were beyond her acting talent. Instead, she just thought about her mother, who had died the previous year. “The tears just fell,” she recalled. “Afterwards the crew applauded. ‘Now, that’s what I call emotion,’ the director said.”
Fame wasn’t easy for a woman who remembers herself as a timid teen-ager flung into stardom after winning a beauty pageant in Phnom Penh in 1959. “I didn’t realize what fame was all about,” she said. “The more people wanted to see me, the more I closed the door. It was like that for most of my career.”
But when directors refused to listen to her novel story ideas, the self-effacing star was confident enough to take matters into her own hands.
“I’d had enough of playing dramatic roles, all this crying and sentimental stuff,” she said. “I was looking for a change, a new type of popular film.
“The producers weren’t interested, so I started to produce my own films, both modern and historical. Afterwards they copied me.”
Dy Saveth fled to France in 1975, just as her films were gaining recognition outside Cambodia. She would not star in another movie until 1989, when she went to North Korea to film “The Countess of Nokorom,” a production directed by Prince Sihanouk. She had starred in several royal films in the 1960s and was, and still is, she believes, a favorite of the King’s.
“The King has lots of new players [for his new films] but he still thinks about his actors from the old times,” she said.
Dy Saveth also likes to dwell on the old times, lingering over the few photographs and posters retrieved from the destruction of the Khmer Rouge regime. But she is also looking to the future, forging ahead with a new television career, despite a vow upon her return in 1993 not to resume work on-screen.
It’s my destiny, she murmured, I cannot do anything else.
(Additional reporting by Mhari Saito)