Don’t be fooled by the villa nestled near a dense banana plantation on the far reaches of Phnom Penh, Ly Bun Yim says.
“I’m not hiding from society. I want to stay out here because the environment is good,” he said.
It was a different sense of environment that brought Ly Bun Yim back to Cambodia in the 1990s after three decades in exile. Perhaps Cambodia’s most famous film maker, Ly Bun Yim now volunteers his time to re-establish the Cambodian movie industry, which collapsed during Cambodia’s war years.
“I want to teach the young generations about making movies, because if they can produce better films, our culture is firm,” he said.
With such titles as “Sapp Seth,” “12 Sisters,” and “An Euil” to his credit, Ly Bun Yim has served as a volunteer professor of the Khmer Movie and Video Development Association since 1995.
It’s been a rough journey. Between 1995 and 2000, more than 160 film companies went bankrupt, Ly Bun Yim said. Now he teaches his students the business sense they need to run a successful production company.
“I started educating young film producers when I saw the movie sector in Cambodia was in crisis,” he said.
Most directors have failed to develop many Khmer-language films because, at $1,500 for a 45-minute feature, the costs mount too quickly.
To save costs, and perhaps Cambodian cinema as well, Ly Bun Yim urges his pupils to make use of cheap digital technology that has only recently become available.
“Film producers think the Khmer movie is disappearing, but I have another idea that the Khmer films will never die,” he said. “If we film producers only try hard to perform, our movie sector will never die.
“The new film producers followed my advice, that’s why the Khmer movie sector still survives today,” he said.
He is hoping that his latest feature, “Court of God,” which was financed with the help of a group of Cambodian-Americans, will soon play to audiences around the world.
“I only want the Khmer movies to reach international standards,” he said.
There are other standards as well. Worried that Cambodian actresses would get caught up in their fame and scandalize the conservative public, he has asked them to sign three-year contracts obligating them to follow Khmer customs.
“We will allow them to marry if their parents agree to let them marry,” he said.
Ly Bun Yim’s love of film began in childhood, when he taught himself to take photographs of landscapes that appealed to him.
In 1956, he studied at Preah Sihanouk Junior High School in Kompong Cham province, where he entered his photography in a US Information Service contest and won.
It was the spark that started him on his life’s ambition.
“After that, I made a makeshift photograph enlarger and learned how to develop film, make prints and enlarge photos. I began to shoot pictures and sell them as postcards in Kompong Cham and Phnom Penh,” he said.
It wasn’t enough to pay the bills, though. After years of studying French in a Phnom Penh high school he opened a pharmacy along Kampuchea Krom Boulevard.
“I never learned about medicine, but I could treat people with injections and offered medicine very effectively. I always treated people for free, that’s why a lot of customers came to me to ask for treatment,” he said.
He never forgot his first love, though. When a rival pharmacy offered to buy him out in 1960, he leapt at the chance to change careers and once again work in film.
Ly Bun Yim gave half of the money from the sale of his pharmacy to his mother and took the other half with him on a vacation to Hong Kong, where he bought a new movie camera.
“I loved the camera and I couldn’t walk away from it. I spent all of my money to buy it,” he said.
His first film, starring himself, was titled “Thunderbolt in the Family.” Although influenced by foreign films, Ly Bun Yim said he worked hard to tailor his story to Khmer audiences.
“Cambodian people want the story to end by punishing the bad guys, but foreign films…didn’t punish the bad guys,” he said. “Foreign people have a lot of sophistication. They understand when the movie is over the bad guys will be punished later, but the Cambodians—they don’t want the bad guys to stay safe.”
“Thunderbolt in the Family” was a smash hit.
“I made people laugh. When people [outside] heard audiences inside, they bought tickets,” he said.
For the next 15 years, using 16 mm and 35 mm film, standard and CinemaScope, Ly Bun Yim made 21 movies with titles such as “The Roaring Tiger,” “The Raw and the Cooked Spirit,” “The Shouting Man,” “The Sea Horse,” “Where is My Wife?” and “The Adventure on the Heavenly Moon.” His movies became so popular that other movie houses changed their showing times so they wouldn’t have to compete with him, Ly Bun Yim said.
“I felt sorry for other movie producers. I allowed them to rent my cinema to show their movies,” he said.
Because he rented out his space to other film companies, 10 of his films were never shown to the public. Then Pol Pot came to power in 1975 and the cinemas were closed.
When the Khmer Rouge took control of Phnom Penh in April of that year, some of the guerrillas recognized Ly Bun Yim from his films. They arrested him and sent him to Kandal province to be executed. But he escaped when he became mixed with a group of other evacuees, telling the Khmer Rouge soldiers in Kandal he had been ordered to escort a crowd from Phnom Penh and then to return.
He fled to Vietnam and then into Laos. The Laotians arrested him and were scheduled to return him to the Khmer Rouge. But a fellow prisoner escaped and went to Thailand, carrying a letter from Ly Bun Yim to the UN, asking for help. The UN intervened, but instead of giving their prisoners to the world body, they sent the group to Vietnam.
Eventually, a relative in France sent for Ly Bun Yim, where he lived for the next two decades.
In the early 1980s, Ly Bun Yim toured the US and Canada with some of his old films, selling more than three tons of posters to Cambodian expatriates living abroad. It is a tour of which Ly Bun Yim remains proud.
“It made the Khmers living there very happy and brought praise to Cambodia by Americans,” he said.
Since his return to Cambodia in 1994, Ly Bun Yim has worked to rebuilding the film industry. Although the newfound free market in Cambodia claims some companies, Ly Bun Yim isn’t worried.
“We are sportsmen. We don’t want to tie other sportsmen’s feet. When we produce good films, people will watch them.”