Retracing ’60s and ’70s Cambodian cinema, one building at a time

The eye-opening documentary “Golden Slumbers,” which screened at the 2012 New York Asian Film Festival, recounts the golden age of Cambodian cinema almost entirely through oral history: the words of cinema fanatics, the associated theme songs that have stood the test of time and the first-person accounts from the few entertainers who survived the 1970’s rule of the Khmer Rouge.  Directed by Davy Chou, a Cambodian raised in France, the film had started off as a research project into the life of his grandfather, Van Chann, a producer from that golden age.  When anecdotes of his grandfather proved to be scarce, Chou turned to the few remaining spoken and visual cinematic remnants of the pre-Khmer Rouge era to paint a portrait of a film repertoire largely destroyed and nearly forgotten.  (Most reels of the nearly 400 Cambodian films produced between 1960 and 1975 no longer exist.)

Some of those visual remnants, it turns out, are the few buildings scattered across Phnom Penh that provide clues to the cinematic culture that once thrived in the Cambodian capital.  Chou visits a few of these movie theaters in search of clues for his documentary, which was released in 2011.  Inspired by the film and accompanied by a map courtesy of Khmer Architecture Tours, I set out in search of structures from days long past.

The Capitol Cinema, built in 1964, is no longer used as a movie theater.  As the documentary and posters plastered on the building indicate, it is now a social hall complete with entertainment options such as billiards and table tennis.  The individual responsible for the design, however, is Cambodia’s most-renowned architect Vann Molyvann, one of the leaders of a hybrid French-trained, Cambodian-influenced movement referred to as New Khmer Architecture.  His works between 1955 to 1970 are dotted all throughout Phnom Penh, some of which are in danger of being torn down to make way for new development (and several of which have already been dismantled).

 

 

The facade of the 1960’s Prom Bayon Cinema has morphed into a shell of its former self.  A picture from the late 2000’s shows the old signage and proof that it used to be a theater of sorts.  Now the venue has been converted into an upper-floor spa outlined in bright red with an equally bright “crown” to match.  In both cases, the theater seemingly protrudes from a cluster of apartment buildings.

 

The Cinema Lux, constructed sometime between 1935 to 1945, has apparently gone through a number of transformations equivalent to duct-taped face lifts.  It is the only venue featured in this article that still shows movies, albeit of the high-octane, Thai horror, Khmer-dubbed variety as the signage reveals.

 

 

Finally, the Hemakcheat Cinema – thought to have been built in the 1950’s – was abandoned like most venues after the Khmer Rouge took over and emptied out the capital.  When former denizens of Phnom Penh returned to find a place to call home, large venues like the Hemakcheat became squatters’ colonies and, to this day, remains as such.  It features prominently in “Golden Slumbers” when Hemakcheat residents are asked to recall their favorite moments of Khmer cinema prior to 1975.

Video: Q&A excerpt with “Golden Slumbers” director Davy Chou, 2012 New York Asian Film Festival

At the 2012 New York Asian Film Festival, “Golden Slumbers” director Davy Chou talks about how the documentary came together, his family ties and what led him to Cambodia, a country he had not visited before his 20’s.

video by Yuan-Kwan Chan / Meniscus Magazine

“Golden Slumbers” is still making the film festival rounds and has recently been released on DVD.  For more information, go to goldenslumbersfilm.wordpress.com. For more information on Khmer Architecture Tours, which runs tours by cyclo and on foot throughout the year, go to www.ka-tours.org.