Surreal Cinema in Cambodia

2 Apr
The horror movie of the week poster

The horror movie of the week poster

Once you slow down in traveling and move away from the ‘Lonely Planet’ route (or any other guide), then you start doing things that the locals do – or what I use to do back home in Brussels – like going to the cinema.

But if you think Cinema in Cambodia is a ‘normal’ affair (for me at least) then think again! I went to see a Cambodian film with a Khmer friend. Quite an experience – partly because what was happening on the screen, but just as much observing what was going on in the seats around me…

The khmer films can be divided into two main categories – either the cheezy romantic type OR the horror films. We went to see a horror film – me that couldn’t sleep for 2 weeks after watching E.T.

There are not a whole lot of cinemas in Cambodia (only a few in Phnom Penh, who play only one movie, which changes from week to week. Most of the movies are Thai import – because there’s not a lot of money in the Khmer film industry – and Thailand is sort of the big cultural brother. It’s probably the same as the difference between an American soap opera (lots of money and expertise) and the improvisation of Flemish soaps (horrendous to watch). A ticket sets you back 8000 Real = 2 $.

Rooftop cinema - the only one in Cambodia

Rooftop cinema - the only one in Cambodia

Likewise, this Cambodian film had a storyboard which resembled the little movie we had made in last year of secondary school, with a teacher that had this luminous idea to use active methods in the class room. So we wrote a (bad) script, got someone’s parents’ film camera and shot & acted the film. Décor, props, effects etc. are all home made (read: improvised). This film was similar.

The story of the film was as follows: the village sorcerer/me dicine man and his daughter set out to harm the innocent inhabitants. They cast black magic on the people. E.g. the daughter blows a badly computer animated curse (fluorescent green spiky shape) to the stomach of a woman – and she gets dramatic stomach cramps. The medicine man boils a concoction of herbs from which a badly animated skull rises and makes a person sleepwalk himself to death into the local lake. Each time someone dies, the medicine man goes over to the dead body with a big knife (with dramatic background music) and takes out the intestines with a malicious victory smile on his face. But the villagers catch on that the medicine man and his daughter are behind the recent mysterious deaths of some loved ones and burn down their house. All very realistic… lol

Another horror movie poster

Another horror movie poster

The soundtrack in itself, relayed outside the cinema to attract the customers, is amazing: even though the film is Khmer, all voices are dubbed in Khmer (none of the lipping fits the sound) and added on later. And it seems to me that the Cambodian people do not speak ‘normally’: all characters in the film used exaggerated intonation (for me at least): screaming, squeaking or squealing instead of talking. Add some basic sound-effects you would find in your standard Windows programmes. Imagine this in a fully fitted Dolby Surround system with the volume turned to maximum, and you get an impression of what attack it is on the eardrums.

So don’t go to see a movie for the intelligent plot or great effects, however there are many cultural references. The women are cleaning the rice as they do in the villages, the scenes are set against the backdrop of rice fields with buffaloes plowing through them, etc. There was also a dwarf (small person), who was the funny character in the film, pulling the jokes. Romance was shown very prudishly, with a kiss on a shoulder as the height of eroticism in the whole movie. Etc. So nice to see as a sort of documentary on khmer culture.

Don’t forget to watch the audience.

Local fauna - my cinema companion

Local fauna - my cinema companion

Many things are happening on the screen, but the spectators are just as much fun to watch. First of all, there’s no movie goers etiquette whatsoever. People were talking, phoning, throwing things to each other, SMSing, eating noisy and smelly food, etc. Some came in half an hour late into the movie – and my khmer friend actually wanted to leave 5 minutes before the end of the movie to get out more quickly – and I must say the plot was so predictable, that indeed we didn’t need to see that the house was going to be burned down.

Movie theaters are also a dark place, and dark places see things happen that shun the daylight. So most of the people there were couples (even at the horror movie!), and couples do what couples do, in the dark. So that explains why it doesn’t really matter if you come late for the movie. The film is not the most important… hehe

  • Try it yourself ;-)
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