Director Fay Sam Ang said he regrets the deaths of about a dozen golden elephant fish, sacrificed for his upcoming film.
But for the sake of providing a realistic account of the Khmer legend of “Morana Meathda,” or “Mother Death,” their slaughter was necessary, the movie’s director and screenwriter said.
A number of animals, including a cobra, a cat, a parrot and fish, are given starring roles among a cast of more than 500 actors in the $70,000 production.
But, Fay Sam Ang said, only the fish—and the lead actress, who accidentally fell into a vat of hot oil—were harmed during the filming.
“We need to kill a lot of elephant fishes for this story,” he said. “I felt sympathetic to those animals and fish, but we had to do it because we need the story to show realistic activities.”
“Morana Meathda,” produced by Prasatpich Pheapyun (Diamond Temple Production), is among the latest in a recent onslaught of Khmer movies being filmed in Cambodia.
The surge in Khmer movie production, fueled by a wave of nationalist sentiment following the January 2003 anti-Thai riots, has sparked recent criticism over shoddily made films that have little appeal to movie-goers.
But Tong Seng, owner of Prasatpich Pheapyun, said “Morana Meathda” is already generating a buzz ahead of its April 13 release in Phnom Penh theaters.
“I have heard people talking about this story at Phnom Penh markets and homes,” he said.
At least part of its attraction may come from the story’s roots in Khmer history, Tong Seng said, adding that, “anyone who watches this movie will be teary-eyed with pleasure.”
“Morana Meathda” was written more than a century ago by a Cambodian Buddhist monk named Ouk. The story was printed as a Khmer novel in 1960. It was also made into an earlier film by the same name in the late 1960s, which proved to be a hit in Cambodia at that time.
Fay Sam Ang said the story was later made into a movie by a Thai film producer. But now, he said, he is reclaiming the legend.
“I need to film this story to tell and show both elderly and young Cambodians, so they understand that “Morana Meathda” is really a traditional Cambodian movie,” Fay Sam Ang said.
Several of the leading actors and actresses agreed, adding they hoped in the future, Cambodian films can be made more competitive and accessible by airing them on television.
“Not all Cambodian people can see movies in theaters. But both rich and poor people can watch Cambodian movies if they are shown on television, because they don’t need to pay money to buy tickets,” said the movie’s lead actress Danh Monica.
“Morana Meathda” tells the story of a loving couple, Kdom Pi, and his wife, Kol Kesey, who live an idyllic life with their daughter—that is, until a widower and her two daughters enter the picture.
The widower, Kaley Kessey, falls in love with Kdom Pi and puts a magic spell on him, convincing him to make her his second wife.
The family becomes poorer as the second wife, Kaley Kessey, usurps the family’s fortunes. Additional trouble is introduced as one of the second wife’s daughters, coincidentally, looks nearly identical to Kdom Pi’s own child.
Kaley Kessey is envious of Kdom Pi’s first wife and eventually persuades him to kill her while she is out fishing. The first wife then transforms into an elephant fish.
She comes to her grieving daughter in a dream, telling her of her fate, and the two then meet at the riverbank everyday. Meanwhile, the daughter is given the nickname Morana Meathda after her mother’s death, and is mistreated by her evil stepmother.
One day, the stepmother discovers what has become of her rival, so she catches her and cooks her for her family to eat.
As the movie progresses Morana Meathda and her mother are repeatedly thwarted by the evil stepmother and stepsister.
Morana Meathda is also killed when she falls into a vat of boiling oil, a booby trap prepared by the stepmother. She is then replaced by her identical stepsister.
Justice is served when the stepsister’s identity is revealed and she is killed as punishment. Her remains are made into a fermented paste and delivered to her mother.
Meanwhile, Morana Meathda’s spirit returns as a parrot and, after a complicated chain of events, regains human form.
Morana Meathda is performed by actress Danh Monica, 18, who also plays her identical stepsister. Sweng Socheata plays the stepmother Kaley Kessey, and 33-year-old Horm Chhora plays Kdom Pi.
During the filming of the scene of Morana Meathda’s death, Danh Monica said she actually fell into the vat of oil, though it was not yet scalding, and was bruised slightly.
But, as director Fay Sam Ang suggested, a little pain only made the movie more realistic, Danh Monica said.
“It made me hurt in the performance, but I felt very happy because my performance for the movie became more lively.”