Moviegoers streamed out of the Lux cinema on Norodom Boulevard under the scowls of ghouls and zombies and the guts of bloody corpses.
The graphic images stretched across the marquee advertise a feature film, which had just finished showing on a recent cloudy weekday morning. “Before I saw the movie, I rode my motorbike along Norodom and looked at the signs,” said Chin Phoeurn who stood just outside the recently opened, modern movie palace. “I like these kinds of paintings,” he said.
Another moviegoer, Sim Thanin, agreed. The shocking images captured his attention. “When I first saw it from the road, it made me want to watch the movie,” he said.
It’s a common sight on the avenues of Phnom Penh: Grotesque, hand-painted signs of movie monsters and Hong Kong action stars. The murals adorn the fronts of movie palaces and the sides of trucks that cruise the dusty city streets, blaring shrill ads.
Phnom Penh is in the midst of a movie palace boom. And, the two longtime sign painters responsible for the salacious scenes from contemporary Asian cinema are now busier than ever.
On a recent morning inside his open-air studio in the Daun Penh district, 60-year-old Lim Keav squatted in front of a row of canvases. The bare-chested, gray-haired painter held in one hand a movie still from a South Korean comedy, set to open at Vimean Tip theater. He held a thin brush in the other, painting the outline of the movie star’s face. Next he grabbed a wider brush to fill in the background with blue. He didn’t mind the dripping paint or specks of dirt spotted the canvas. He worked quickly. If he didn’t, the paint would dry, he explained. “I never rest while I’m painting.”
Cinema sign-painting is about speed, apparently, and Lim Keav’s actions are swift, sometimes sloppy. He slaps paint onto the canvas with disregard, but his careless movements come from decades of experience. If you can’t paint fast, you can’t survive in this business, he said. And it’s a business Lim Keav dominates. He turns out eight paintings per week for five Phnom Penh movie houses.
“Doing these paintings is quite difficult because they are so very large,” he said without taking an eye off the canvas he worked over.
Lim Keav started painting for the movies in 1961, at a time when theaters in Phnom Penh buzzed with activity. “I never had formal art training, never went to the university,” he said as he flipped a cigarette from a crumpled pack. His studio, Kok Tep Arts, which doubles as a traditional sign shop, smells of spray paint and is decorated with remnants of old movie signs.
“I developed a deep love of painting movies when I was still in school and then began training with a sign painter who used to paint movies in the 1960s,” he said. But now Lim Keav doesn’t watch the films his paintings promote. Movie theater managers provide images and sometimes lend ideas. “Cinema owners never complain about my paintings. I take their money, so I paint very carefully.”
Bun Sea manages the Kampul Pech movie theater where Lim Keav’s painting regularly appear. “Lim Keav is a talented painter. He’s skillful. I usually pick the most interesting scenes from the movies and then send them to the painters,” he said.
At Khemarin Cinema, Lim Keav’s murals also regularly cover the theater’s facade. “To me, his paintings are vivid and attractive,” said theater manager Pov Soeng.
But more than the art, theater managers use hand-painted signs because it’s cheap. Compared with printers who are able to produce large, full-color signs, the painters are a bargain, which is probably the only reason original artwork is still seen on movie theaters throughout Phnom Penh. Professional printing starts at $25 and goes as high as $100 per square meter, so theater managers looking to plaster glossy, custom-printed movie ads on their marquee for only a few months could face huge expenses.
The cost is high because the printing materials have to be imported from Thailand and are heavily taxed, said Ungsi Kuong, manager at 3D Graphics Publishing, a local print shop.
Lim Keav charges only $7 per square meter for his work. Some of his larger paintings cost as much as $300. Sea Sobein, the only other sign painter in Phnom Penh who regularly works with theaters, charges a bit more. His work goes for $12 per square meter for new canvases and $10 for recycled. He paints only for one Cambodian movie theater.
“It’s cheaper than printing, and faster,” said Muong Sokhan, deputy director of cinema and culture for the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts. He agreed the Cambodian film industry has made strides in recent years. This, he said, is the reason the city is being decorated with scenes like giant comic illustrations.
In an alleyway next to Renakse Hotel, Sea Sobein, 39, stood on a crude, paint-speckled pedestal. A mess of cans thick with layers of colorful enamel sat next to his feet. He worked a brush over the bottom half of a horseman. The other half of the horseman, clutching a severed head, was propped up a few yards away in Sea Sobein’s make-shift studio of barns full with broken-down cars. The two halves eventually become part of an ad for a Khmer epic now showing at Kampoul Pich theater.
“Painting signs for Khmer films takes much longer than painting signs for foreign movies,” Sea Sobein said as sweat rolled down his back. “For foreign movies it only takes two days to finish, but for Khmer films it takes much longer, because you need to paint the actors and actresses clearly and beautifully. Identical to the photos.”
It’s not so important that actors in foreign films are recognizable because Phnom Penh moviegoers are typically unfamiliar with foreign actors. For those films, it’s the blood and the guts that matter. Sea Sobein churns out gore effortlessly. “I have been very busy since about September 2002 because theaters need more paintings.”
Although business is booming for the two movie sign painters, when the cost of printing falls—and it eventually will—so too will the art of movie sign painting. And there doesn’t seem to be any sign painters eager to take the place of the two most significant figures in Phnom Penh cinema arts. No one trains under Lim Keav; Sea Sobein only keeps a few students. Neither painter keeps his old paintings or, for that matter, any record of what he’s painted. Only the scraps remain. Lim Keav scoffed at the idea of keeping his paintings. There are too many, he said. He can’t remember how many he has completed during his career.
Few in Phnom Penh seem to view the movie signs as anything more than pure advertising. “There is not much creativity behind it,” said Denise Arsenault, an artist originally from Canada living in Phnom Penh. “It’s kind of interesting,” she said. Arsenault worked with Cambodian artists for a sex education campaign sponsored by the UN Educational, Scientific Cultural Organization. But, she said, painting for the movies is more technique than art.
Fans of the quirky paintings who see the signs as a form of public art seem to be mostly Western expatriates from countries where anything related to movies are mass produced posters or glossy billboards.
Moviegoers, or anyone else for that matter, probably won’t appreciate the quirky, hand-painted signs until the murals vanish, said Peter Wu, a former Phnom Penh restaurant owner who once commissioned Lim Keav to paint a mural. “I kept driving by these theaters and would see the mural and I just wanted one myself.”
“I think it’s a dying art,” he said.