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Cambodia on Camera

May 16. 2016
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Phnom Penh's Ritzy Diamond island takes on extra sparkle at the Cannes Film Festival
 Cambodia's burgeoning film industry is showing just how rapidly it has developed in recent years with two films selected for this year’s Cannes Film Festival.
The first is the latest from Cannes habitu้ Rithy Panh. The French-Cambodian director’s “Exile”, is a tense reflection of his country under the Khmer Rouge regime and is showing out of competition in a special screening. 
The other is “Diamond Island”, the debut full-length feature of Chou Davy, which is being presented in the Critic’s Week sidebar to the festival, a showcase made up of 10 features from first- and second-time directors. “Diamond Island” had its world premiere last Friday and was welcomed by both the audience and international critics.
In 2011-12, Chou’s documentary “Golden Slumbers” became a festival hit after showing in Busan and Berlin. “Diamond Island” is a co-production among Cambodia, France and Thailand, with Pithai Smithsuth’s VS Service and Soros Sukhum’s 185 Films supporting the production and financing from film funds. 
“While it is the opposite of ‘Golden Slumbers’, ‘Diamond Island’ is also a kind of continuation,” says the young director of his earlier work for which he interviewed the legendary film directors and stars of Cambodia before the Khmer Rouge era, among them Dy Saveth or Ly Bun Yim. 
“When I made ‘Golden Slumbers’, which is about the past, I was always mindful of keeping the camera in the present in order to see if in the present we can see the facts and the choices of the past. That taught me how surprisingly unaware Cambodia’s young people are of the past. I see people playing snooker or eating in a restaurant in what used to be a theatre but they have no idea of the venue’s history, of what it used to be. This kind of amnesia in the youth of a country with such a tragic history seemed strange to me. I wanted to make a film that would explore and understand the relationship between the youth and the myth of Cambodia’s modernity,” Chou explains. 
“Diamond Island” is the story of Bora, a young construction worker who comes to Phnom Penh to work as construction worker on Koh Pich, as Diamond Island is known locally, a spit of land located in Tonle Sap River and the new commercial and residential area of Phnom Penh. On the island, Bora meets his long-lost bother Solei, who introduces him of the night life of the city, and promises to take him to America, where Solei’s mysterious sponsor lives.
Development of Diamond Island is yet to be completed and many of the luxurious villas are empty. It has become a place for teenagers in Phnom Penh to hang out, not least because of the paucity of venues elsewhere in time where they can spend time.
“I wanted to make the film about the Cambodian youth of today. I didn’t think about Diamond Island before, but when I went there in 2013, I knew immediately this it was the perfect location to shoot. It made me think of Universal Studios, with huge edifices sticking out of nowhere. It was the perfect film set with its kitsch architecture and huge European-influenced buildings though for me the most interesting thing was watching young people come to the island. Some of them came as construction workers but a lot of them just went there to ride their motorbikes,” Chou says. 
“There’s a naivete in the teenagers who stare with wondering eyes around the island. You can see that in Bora who looks at everything with a mix of curiosity, desire and longing. The film is really an interaction between young people and the place.”
Asked it had been difficult for him to move from the documentary-style of “Golden Slumbers” to a feature, Chou pauses.
“I don’t think so as I don’t consider Golden Slumbers as a documentary”, he replies after a moment. “When I made ‘Golden Slumbers’, I was thinking more of a film like Jia Zhangke’s ‘24 City’. I also thought a lot about works by Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Apichatpong Weerasethakul and Tsai Ming-liang. Having said that though, I was new to directing actors and I was worried whether I would succeed.”
In fact the actors in “Diamond Island” are not professionals but kids off the street. Noun Subon, an 18-year-old taxi driver, portrays Bora while painter Nov Cheanick plays Solei. And while none of the cast has acting experience, they all deliver fresh and sincere performances.
A colourful work, “Diamond Island” shows the sparkling nightlife in Phnom Penh. Some scenes are intentionally filmed so as not to look real. 
“The colour is so important to this film. I wanted to explore digital cinema. Today it’s relatively easy to fake old-fashioned images using digital technology but I wasn’t interested in trying to make the movie look as though it had been shot with 35mm film,” he says.
“The film is not only about Cambodia today, but also Cambodia in the future. I didn’t want to use the old look to represent Cambodia, so we tried to really push digital image on its own and put in as much colour as we could. We used shots that catch the eye like video games or manga, something fake but very visual, as we wanted the set to have a video game look where everything is fake.”
“Diamond Island” will move from Cannes to other film festivals before going on general release in Cambodia and Thailand later this year or next year.

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