By Donsaron Kovitvanitcha
The 1960s are widely known as the golden age of Cambodian cinema with more than 300 films made in slightly over a decade including the horror flick “Pos Keng Kang” (“The Snake King’s Wife”) by Tea Lim Kun, which enjoyed great success in Thailand. The take-over of the country by the Khmer Rouge in 1975 brought an abrupt end to that era, with many movers and shakers killed or forced to flee abroad and despite peace
returning to Cambodia 20 years ago, the industry has remained small.
Now Cambodia looks set to enter a second golden age thanks to a new generation of talented filmmakers who have been scooping up awards. The most recent to take home a top prize was Sotho Kulikar, who received the Spirit of Asia award from the Japan Foundation Asia Centre at last month’s prestigious Tokyo International Film Festival for her directorial debut “The Last Reel”.
“I wanted to tell the story of my country from the perspective of a Cambodian who has gone through the period of war and poverty,” says Kulikar, one of the few female film directors in Cambodian film history. The most famous is Ung Kanthouk who survived the Khmer Rouge and now resides in France and directed “Mouy Mern Alai” (“10,000 Regrets:) which was also released in Thailand. Also well up the stepladder to fame is Kalyanee Mamm whose “A River Changed Course” was the first Cambodian documentary to be screened at Sundance Film Festival.
Kulikar already has more than 10 years of experienced to her credit and heads her own production service company Hanuman Films, which has worked on many international productions including the Angelina Jolie vehicle “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider”.
She became director of “The Last Reel” almost by accident. “When the script came to me, I was intending to be the line producer, which is my field of work, but the scriptwriter encouraged me to take the helm,” she explains.
“The Last Reel” begins in modern-day Cambodia when Sophoun (Ma Rynet) escapes the marriage arranged by her family and seeks refuge in an old movie theatre. There she meets Vichea (Sok Sothun), an old projectionist who shows her an unreleased film from the pre-Khmer Rouge days and tells her that the last reel is missing. Sophoun feels a connection with the story and after finding out that her mother was the lead actress sets out to try to complete it by re-shooting the lost part. In the process, she learns the story of her parents during the days under the Khmer Rouge.
“I was 19 months old when the Khmer Rouge took control of Phnom Penh,” Kulikar says, adding that she too feels a connection to the script.
“I was in my father’s arms when our family was forced to leave the city. I grew up during the period but I can’t remember things very clearly. One thing that I remember well is that during the later years of that regime, I didn’t see my father anymore. Suddenly he was gone. I was sent to live in the children’s camp. One day there was a massive storm and the building collapsed. My mother who was working in the rice field ran to the children’s camp to find me. As she reached the building, the old lady who looked after the children held me up to show I’m still live. After the genocide, all that was left of the family was me, my mother and my sister.”
Much of “The Last Reel” is focused on the 1960s and the films made during that decade. Kulikar watched many of them in the post-regime years.
“I love the golden age of Khmer cinema. I love the films directed by our King Father Norodom Sihanouk like ‘The Rose of Bokor’ and Ung Kanthouk’s movies like ‘Mouy Mern Alai’, which reflects modern Cambodian society back then. I love the purity of the old Khmer films, and I want everyone to start talking about the films from the golden age.”
Dy Saveth, the renowned Khmer actress who starred in “Snake Man” plays Sophoun’s mother, Srey Mom, and it is her face that appears in the unreleased film.
“Dy Saveth represents our glorious years, and she is a very talented actress. The combination of her legacy and the fact that she is still full of energy as an actress is the reason I asked her to be in my film.”
“I’ve known Kulikar for a while,” adds Dy Saveth who was in Tokyo for the screening, her second visit after a gap of almost 50 years.
“When Kulikar gave me the script I was instantly attracted to the title. I wanted to understand more about the period of the Khmer Rouge when I was not in Cambodia,” says the veteran actress who fled to Thailand before the fall of Phnom Penh and lived in France for almost 20 years before returning to Cambodia in 1994.
“There’s a lot of energy running through Cambodian cinema,” says Kulikar, “We have Rithy Panh whose films are selected for the major film festivals and ‘The Missing Picture’ was also nominated for an Academy Award. Two year ago we co-produced ‘Ruin’ with an Australian company and the film was screened in Venice.
“All that energy as well as the support we receive through the social media is really giving hope to the new generation of filmmakers.”
After its success in Tokyo, “The Last Reel” will return home this December as the opening film of the Cambodia International Film Festival, before continuing its travels around the festival circuit.
“It’s been selected for the Singapore International Film Festival too and we are talking with many others. Our aim is to show ‘The Last Reel’ as several festivals before it goes for commercial release in Cambodia,” she says.