A Closer Look at the Troubled World of Modern Cambodian Cinema

In the early 1980s, Cambodians newly liberated from the Khmer Rouge flocked to the cinema. Theaters drew huge crowds, no matter what they showed: old movies and new ones, films about war or politics, stories of love or stories of class struggle. The Cambodian appetite for film is well-known, going back to colonial times and epitomized by the nation’s cinephile King Norodom Sihanouk, who has made more than 20 films. But the golden years are long past.

Despite the efforts of government and the private sector, Cambodian cinema continues to decline. Its current state even pales in comparison to the period immediately post-Khmer Rouge, when a devastated population packed theaters even for showings of dull communist propaganda films.

The film department of the Ministry of Culture now oversees only two official cinemas, said the department’s director, Som Sokun. These have carved out a niche by offering air conditioning, surround sound and a big screen a better quality experience than viewing at home.

Cinemagoers said recently that they are nostalgic for the experience. “I miss Vimean Tip,” said Vann Thorn, referring to the grand old Monivong Boulevard theater. “In my youth, I had to stand in a long line for tickets.”

Another moviegoer, Bun Yan, said he doesn’t come to the cinema often because so many movies can be seen for free on television. “I’ve had enough films,” he said. “I came [today] to see the cinema, not the movie.”

Nop Savon and Tim Vuthy said they believe Cambodian movies won’t survive if they have to compete freely with movies from Hong Kong, Singapore and Thailand. Cambodian youths watch movies in English not only for the subject matter but to improve their English, Nop Savon noted.

Som Sokun blamed a lack of sophistication in Cambodian movies. The ideas are often banal, the acting poor and the quality low. Many different movies are made based on the same storylines, and shallow dialogue prevents actors from getting deeply into their roles, he said.

Many moviegoers agreed. Cambodian film stars have never been to school to study their craft, so their acting is stiff and wooden, they said. They said Cambodian movies were difficult to become emotionally involved in.

Why are the movies so bad? Filmmakers and officials say Cambodian cinema faces a lack of resources, insufficient copyright protection and censorship.

Money is a major obstacle, said veteran director Ly Bun Yim. He recalled that the government tried to promote Cambodian cinema last year by providing $1,500 to filmmakers, but it wasn’t enough.

“There are no other sponsors,” he said. But if the government expanded its film sponsorship, such a program “will [help] prolong the life of Cambodian movies,” he said.

Tep Rindaro, a top karaoke and film star, said he was pleased with the survival of Khmer films and optimistic for their future. However, he said, “I am still worried by the lack of ability, low budgets, and stale ideas in movies.”

Actors, he said, should not be blamed, since they merely follow the orders of the director. “Good movies don’t just need money,” he said. “They need the mutual understanding of the whole crew.”

In Ratatanak, a former movie and video actor, said Cambodian actors, directors and scriptwriters’ lack of education is at the root of the movies’ unconvincing scenes.
“Cambodian movies have no subtlety, no suspense,” he said. “The audience knows how the story will end after watching for 15 minutes.”

The government, he said, should require production companies to be qualified and skilled, “not just issue a license to whoever pays for it.” But he said he believes Cambodian movies will come back to life as respected producers come from abroad and movie fans remember their old favorites “The Child of the Giant Snake,” “Decho Damdin,” and the early films of King Norodom Sihanouk.

Today’s occasional, disenchanted moviegoers are a far cry from the old days. Back in the 1980s, when filmgoers stood in long queues for tickets, those who tried to cut in line might be whipped or caned. People lucky enough to make it to the front of the line would buy as many tickets as they could for their friends, or to sell at a higher price.

Movies sold out quickly, but even after all the tickets were gone people would bribe security guards and ticket-takers to get in. They didn’t sit in their seat only by standing could they hope to catch a glimpse of the screen.

Moviegoers situated near overflowing toilets couldn’t even smell them because of the overpowering scent of human sweat that pervaded the room. Sometimes the smell was so oppressive it forced people to leave but usually they stayed, no matter what.

Ly Bun Yim said Cambodians had almost forgotten the meaning of entertainment, which had been nonexistent and seen as “reactionary” under the Khmer Rouge. “Anything was good to them, because it was strange to their eyes,” he said.

“After the Khmer Rouge, Cambodian people were hungry for everything they’d missed. They would watch anything,” Som Sokun agreed.

And watch anything they did. For all the crowds’ enthusiasm, the films were generally abysmal. Censorship by the Vietnamese-backed communist government meant that the majority of the movies shown were communist fables from Vietnam and the Soviet Union, or stories from India about lovers struggling against class boundaries.

Many preferred more exciting fare movies about pirates or gangsters from Hong Kong. But these were banned, along with pornography. Those who watched prohibited films could be fined.

So, Cambodian companies sprung up to make films people would enjoy that wouldn’t anger the government. They made movies like “Reminding the Mind” and “Nine Levels of Hell,” which examined the misery of life under the Khmer Rouge or told of love stories under the Vietnamese-installed government.

The number of film production companies jumped from zero to 215. They competed for showings in 33 Phnom Penh cinemas. The Cambodian people were fed up with communist films about the struggle between social classes. They wanted to watch movies about present Cambodian society.

Stage actors, lured by bigger paychecks, became movie stars. But the popularity of Cambodian movies lasted less than four years.

The influx of pirated movies, on video and then VCD in the 1990s, effectively killed Cambodia’s cinemas. Many film companies died out because they could no longer control the distribution of their films and no longer make a profit.

Today, the survival of Cambodian cinema hinges on enforcement of copyright and intellectual property laws, Ly Bun Yim said.

The government must crack down on piracy, he said, adding that the film production companies plan to form an association and hire attorneys to combat the problem. “Pirating is the real killer of Khmer movies and culture,” he said. “I didn’t make a single riel from my film ÔOn Ey Srey On,’ which was shown on cable and network TV and in the parks.”

By law, films must get permits from his department to be shown, Som Sokun said. But on the six major television stations, the majority of the films shown do not have permits, he said.

Pirated movies cost no more than $50 to show, while locally produced video costs at least $1,200. “So how can Cambodian movies stay alive?” Som Sokun said. Television stations could contribute a great deal simply by not broadcasting pirated movies or those without permits.

But Khieu Kanharith, secretary of state at the Ministry of Information, said recently that submitting movies to the Ministry of Culture for permission can cause complications. The films can be censored or even prohibited from showing, he said.

“The Ministry of Culture should ask themselves why the TV stations don’t respect their authority,” he said. “The Ministry of Information allows TV stations to broadcast whatever they want. If there is a mistake, we will correct it.”

Mao Ayuth, acting president of the association of television stations, agreed that the stations are wary of the Ministry of Culture. “There is a lot of distrust between submitters and approvers,” he said.

Since there are so many films, television stations are afraid their submissions won’t be processed in time to be shown. To expedite the process, money usually has to change hands, observers said.

Mao Ayuth cited TVK as an example. It covers the largest area of any Cambodian station, but has little advertising, he noted. This is because it follows all the government regulations, he said: All the movies shown on TVK have been approved by the Ministry of Culture, many have been censored, and even advertisements have to go through a complicated process.

For example, advertisements for medicine have to go through the Ministry of Health, and traditional dramas can’t be sponsored by modern products, he said. But he declined to answer when asked whether other TV stations went through these checks.

Many agree with the Ministry of Culture’s stance that movies glamorizing drugs and gangs have an adverse affect on society and shouldn’t be allowed.

But in this atmosphere of censorship, poverty and piracy, they wonder: Will there ever be another golden age of Cambodian filmmaking?

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