A Phnom Penh theater is showing a Thai movie for the first time since January’s anti-Thai riots. While advocates say it could help mend rifts suffered during the riots, elements of the presentation point to ongoing cultural and economic tensions between the countries.
Sem Sovanndeth said he bought the rights to distribute the the film in Cambodia from the Thai-based Sahak Mongkol Silms Productions for an undisclosed price. The director of Lux Cinema on Norodom Boulevard, which is showing the movie, and Reaksmey Pean Meas Productions, Sem Sovanndeth said he changed the action movie’s title from “Thai Warrior” to “Flying Knee, Burning Elbow,” to emphasize its Khmer roots.
“Many people watch the movie and applaud the Khmer martial art,” he said.
In addition to Lux, Sem Sovanndeth owns a theater in Takhmau district, Kandal province. Both theaters are currently showing the Thai movie and each attract about 1,000 viewers a day, he said.
The actor Cha Phnomyiram, an ethnic Khmer, performs Cambodian kickboxing in the movie, he said. Cha Phnomyiram is from an area of Thailand’s Chamborey district, in Surin province, which is home to a large ethnic Khmer population.
Sem Sovanndeth said he hopes that Cambodia’s recent accession to the World Trade Organization will help bring more foreign movies to Cambodian audiences and more Cambodian movies to the world.
For the moment, “Only Thailand can accept Cambodian movies because the countries make movies of similar quality,” he said Monday.
His film company has agreed with Sahak Mongkol to make a movie in Khmer starring Cha Phnomyiram, which will be shown in Cambodia before it opens in Thailand.
In a Friday interview on TV5, Cha Phnomyiram pleaded in Thai-accented Khmer, “Please, parents, relatives, support the [current] movie.” He added that the kickboxing in the movie was of Khmer, not Thai, origin.
Muong Sokhan, deputy director of the Film Department of the Ministry of Culture warned that Cambodian movies will decline if they must compete for audiences against Thai and other foreign movies.
He said the ministry would monitor “Flying Knee” and block it from theaters if it continued drawing large audiences. “I support Cambodian movies,” he said. “I will take appropriate measures if the Thai movie wins too many people away from Cambodian movies” in other cinemas.
But Sem Sovanndeth said he hopes entering the global market will give Cambodian movies the incentive they need to improve. “If there are no foreign movies, then Cambodian filmmakers are like frogs in a well,” he said. “I want them to see movie development in neighboring countries.”
“When I import a Thai movie, it doesn’t mean I want to kill local movie producers. I want to improve the economic sector,” he added.
The movie has also revived the eternal argument over which country can claim to have produced the boxing technique used in the film.
Oum Yourunn, first vice president of the Cambodian Amateur Boxing Association, is not worried. “I don’t think the Thai movie will trick people into thinking that the Cambodian martial art belongs to Thailand,” he said Monday. “We have enough documents to prove the [kickboxing] belongs to Cambodia.”
In 2001, he produced a book with the Ministry of Culture that claims to demonstrate the Khmer origins of the art. “Our basic evidence is Angkorian sculpture,” which shows the technique, he said, adding that by the end of this year he would produce further documentation of kickboxing’s history by photographing skilled kickboxers in Siem Reap and Battambang, areas that once belonged to Thailand.
Despite these quibbles, “Flying Knee” is generating interest. Thai Norak Satia, general director of Bayon Television, said he would consider showing the Thai movie. “Because of the political environment, we stopped [showing Thai programming] for a while,” he said Monday. “We have to go step by step.”
Outside the cinema on Wednesday afternoon, both parking lots were packed with motorcycles, as a mostly male crowd lined up to buy 4,000 riel ($1) tickets for the 4 pm show.
But below the outsize sign—a painting of the star and scenes of mayhem, including a man getting his hand sawed off—politics were inescapable.
The first thing Hourt Ang, 24, a bank worker, had to say about the movie was that it was made “between Cambodia and Thailand” and that the star lives abroad and doesn’t speak Khmer well.
But eventually cinematic action won the day. “I like fighting movies like this,” Hourt Ang said. “That’s why I came.”
(Additional reporting by Alex Halperin)