One-time Cambodian movie star Pich Phirun’s business card has a few extra titles these days.
“Mr Pich Phirun, Cambodia Moviestar-Tailor head,” it reads.
Pich Phirun, however, doesn’t need a business card for most introductions. The 45-year-old actor and his equally famous wife, Ampou Tevi, are among a handful of stars instantly recognizable to most Cambodians. Pich Phirun has acted in more than 40 films and countless karaoke videos since he started in 1989. Ampou Tevi, 30, has starred in at least 100 films.
For the past few years, however, Pich Phirun has spent his time in his dress shop just off of Norodom Boulevard in Phnom Penh’s Don Penh district cutting cloth and straightening hems.
And when Ampou Tevi is not taking care of her new baby girl, nicknamed Jolie, she appears in karaoke videos.
A film boom in Cambodia in the 1980s and early 1990s that brought fame to stars like Pich Phirun is over, unable to compete with a flood of Chinese, Thai and American videos entering into the country. The latest swing in the country’s decades-old film industry has left Pich Phirun—and other film stars in Cambodia—looking for other forms of income.
“When the Khmer film and video industry dropped, I went back to my old job to support my family,” Pich Phirun said.
It wasn’t always like this. Cambodia’s film industry took off in the 1960s thanks to the patronage of then-Prince Norodom Sihanouk. During this period, the government approved and then helped sponsor film projects, said Bun Narith, director of the film institute for the Ministry of Culture.
The King himself began making films seriously in 1966 with “Apsara” and “The Enchanted Forest.” More than 25 films followed; the most recent one, “I Shall Wait,” about the death of an elderly prince from cancer, was released in January 1998.
One of the original actresses in the King’s early films, Dy Saveth, 54, said middle-class Cambodians from the city kept the industry buzzing, and films of varying quality moving into Phnom Penh’s 30 movie halls.
“There wasn’t any time for rest, I was working from day to night. I’d be working on two or three films at once,” Dy Saveth said recently at her Phnom Penh home off of Mao Tsetung Street. The actress became famous in 1959 for her role as a young girl who loses her mother-in-law in the 90-minute film, “The Boat of Life.”
The King temporarily stopped making films in 1969 when the government changed. In March 1970, the King’s government was overthrown by one of his generals, Lon Nol, and a cousin, Prince Sirik Matak. The movie industry slowed with the growing war in neighboring Vietnam.
But there was still some activity. By the time Dy Saveth fled the country in 1975, she had appeared in more than 60 films, including the 1974 Taiwanese-Cambodian production, “The Snake Girl Comes Back,” in which she always appears draped in snakes.
She said she soon grew tired of the popular tear-jerker plots that Cambodian movie makers said were in demand, and she turned to producing. In the 1960s and early 1970s, it was relatively easy to make a film, Dy Saveth said. The major expense was sending the film to France to get developed. There were no facilities to develop film in Cambodia until the late 1960s, the actress said. Producers and actors often filled in with the rest by building sets, making costumes and doing makeup, she said.
When the Khmer Rouge entered Phnom Penh in April 1975, all dramatic film production stopped. Cambodia’s Maoist leaders sought to return the country to an agrarian society, shunning technology and education. Many actors, directors and experienced film technicians either died or fled the country, Bun Narith said.
But when the Vietnamese drove the Khmer Rouge out in January 1979, the Cambodian film industry began to slowly revive. Cambodians were sent to Russia to study film and theater, and production companies reopened as Cambodians who had been abroad trickled back to the country, Bun Narith said.
The film industry grew rapidly in the 1980s, Bun Narith said. By the late 1980s and early 1990s, the Cambodian film industry was producing approximately 100 films and videos a year. The films were of varying quality and length and often about simple plots of love. By 1991, there were as many as 150 production companies of varying sizes producing dramas for film and video, Bun Narith said. Some were supported with minimal aid from the state, but most survived on private funds.
“People responded [to movies] because their eyes were starved for films that they could not see for a long time because of the Pol Pot regime,” Bun Narith said.
A brochure from a 1990 Phnom Penh film festival lists 133 domestic films, documentaries and videos. There were 19 working movie theaters in the capital alone, where people piled in to see locally produced films for as much as 500 riel a ticket, Bun Narith said.
But the limelight didn’t last long for Cambodian films. In 1991, UNTAC started to arrive in Cambodia. With UNTAC came Western influences, and with that, came Hollywood.
Videos and films from the US started to come into the market via smuggled tapes and foreign television. Now anyone can buy recently released foreign movies on pirated video tapes for a few dollars in the city’s larger markets. Two months ago, Bayon TV aired this year’s Hollywood blockbuster, “Titanic.” Movies from China and Thailand are also aired regularly on TV, dubbed over by Cambodian actors and actresses.
“We can’t compete with videos from the US, Thailand and China,” Pich Phirun said. “They can afford big sets and have technical experience we can’t think about competing with. They can blow up cars in their films. In Cambodia, we could blow up a bicycle.”
The government claims to have tried repeatedly to revive the domestic industry. To help control the number of illegal videotapes from coming into Cambodia, the government has started work on a copyright law, said Var Roth San, the deputy director of the Intellectual Property Division in the Ministry of Commerce. But Cambodia’s inability to form a government, Var Roth San said, is holding up the law.
Actors and writers in the industry expressed interest in learning from foreign filmmakers. In 1994, the Ministry of Culture discussed creating foreign-funded training programs and raising government film standards.
“The filmmakers [in the late 1980s] came to see themselves as talented writers and producers,” Ieu Pannakar, the former chairman of the Ministry’s film department said when the plan to create training programs was discussed. “But in fact, most of them were not any good at all. Our department tried to advise them to better their skills, but they ignored us.”
But few programs materialized, actors and actresses said, and instead, Cambodia’s former film stars went from 90 minutes of celluloid to five minutes of karaoke video.
A study done in late 1995 by the NGO Health Unlimited found that the number of film and video producers had shrank from an estimated 150 in the early 1990s to about 10. The handful of companies remaining earned their income producing karaoke videos and a few soap operas, the study showed.
One of the largest video production companies is Malaysian-owned HVD. The company came into Cambodia in 1996 and is currently producing a series of TV dramas for Khmer TV featuring Dy Saveth. Already two are completed; the second “My Secret Recipe,” is due to be broadcast on TVK next month. The four-episode soap opera is about a young girl who reluctantly inherits a restaurant business from her mother and is guided through a series of adventures by her aunt, played by Dy Saveth. The serial drama was filmed in Kuala Lumpur.
Cambodians have also been moving from cinemas to televisions. According to market research from International Management and Investment Consultants Limited, less than 1 percent of the population of Phnom Penh go to see movies. Many of the city’s movie theaters have been turned into hotels and restaurants, others sit locked and empty, gathering dust and dirt. At least three others sell 1,500 riel tickets for Chinese-language action movies and pornography.
An IMIC study this year showed that about 79 percent of Phnom Penh citizens own a TV.
The crunch is thinning the wallets of those who make their living in the business. Thirty-two year old Piseth Peaklica, famous for her roles in many of the King’s films and a highly publicized divorce earlier this month from her former husband, actor Khay Praseth, said her income has halved in the past eight years. Her latest film was the King’s most recent release, but the rest of the time she says she spends doing karaoke videos, TV advertisements for domestic brands of whiskey and guest appearances in provincial events.
But there are some positive signs. French-based Cambodian film director Panh Rithy has shown two of his films at the Cannes Film festival in France. The most recent one “A Fine Night After the War” about the aftermath of two decades of war in Cambodia was shown this year. His debut, “Rice People,” was screened during the 1994 festival.
In July, another Cambodian director, Ko Sal, took his hour-long documentary on the Dhammayietra Peace March in Pailin to a regional film festival in Fukuoka, Japan. The response was overwhelming, Ko Sal said.
“People told me, ‘At last!’” Ko Sal said about a Cambodian entry in the film festival. “They said it was like [Cambodia] was lost somewhere.”
Ko Sal is currently directing a $20,000 project with the Ministry of Health and TVK and supported by the World Bank and UN Volunteers. The result will be aired on TVK December 1: three 30-minute segments on the deadly disease AIDS. What is different about this project from the HVD series is that the cast and crew are entirely Khmer, and it is filmed locally.
Technically, the local industry is also improving. Cambodians are being trained by local production companies and on the TVK project to use better cameras, editing equipment and a new sound mixers.
And the will is always there. Pich Phirun said he put aside some of his earnings from his tailoring business to produce his own film.
“Khmer films will develop somehow, but if we are talking about the present, the main problem is the government, and the people’s day-to-day poverty. No one has the luxury to think much about [the movie industry.] Now we are stuck in politics,” Pich Phirun said.
(with additional reporting by Rachel Watson)
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