A passing of the torch, a change of perspectives: looking back, the 69th Cannes Film Festival could be seen as some kind of a watershed for Cambodian cinema. With two feature films making their world premieres during the 10-day event, the 2016 edition certainly ranks as one of the country’s most prominent international cinematic outings in recent years.
But the significance goes well beyond merely the numbers. This is also a year in which a veteran auteur offers a marked departure from his much-celebrated aesthetics, while a fresh-faced filmmaker steps up to offer a Cambodia very much different from what international audiences have always imagined the country to be. Changes are afoot in both style and substance, in both the way the country is represented and how the representing is done.
Not that Rithy Panh’s Exile and Davy Chou’s Diamond Island sprang out of nowhere, though. Having spent more than two decades of his career offering realist, matter-of-fact fictional and documentary features about Cambodia – among them previous Cannes titles such as Rice People (1994) and Duch: Master of the Forges of Hell (2010) – Panh has already signaled a change in style with his previous two films.
The Missing Picture (2013), for example, is a recollection of his experience under the Khmer Rouge through clay figurines; France Is Our Mother Country (2015), meanwhile, is a reflection on colonialism conducted nearly completely through footage from historical archives.
Perhaps emboldened by the acclaim of these two films – The Missing Picture enjoyed a prize-winning debut at Cannes and was nominated for an Academy Award, while France Is Our Mother Country also toured festivals abroad - Panh has certainly pushed all this visual experimentalism further afield with Exile.
While nominally a documentary, the film is hardly a fact-spewing exercise.
Rather, Exile offers something akin to an audio-visual stream of consciousness, as if the viewer sits through a delirious nightmare within Panh’s traumatized mind.
An intentionally disorienting labyrinth of long-forgotten vaulted images unspool within the 78-minute film, from 1960s footage of a prosperous Phnom Penh to Khmer Rouge propaganda newsreels celebrating the regime’s visions of collective labour.
Over the images, an unseen narrator (the voice of Randal Douc) offers a French-language take of history, of ideology, of identity and of course how exile – that of Panh’s and also millions of his fellow Cambodians – affected all this and more. Written by the director’s long-term collaborator Christophe Bataille, the voiceover shifts repeatedly between the personal and the political.
While Panh’s own feelings are accounted for - “I experienced exile more intensely than my childhood,” goes a line heard early in the film – the text also goes beyond that to relate to what is described as a “universal story”.
This is no longer just about the torturers and the tortured in Cambodia during those deadly four years under the Khmer Rouge; this is also about “blood-drenched paths” towards so-called ideological purity throughout history.
Among the many historical figures being quoted is Mao Zedong, whose sayings – from the now well-known Little Red Book – formed the basis of the Khmer Rouge’s dogma.
Panh has certainly provided a timely reminder, given how China has more or less stifled any kind of remembrance of the Cultural Revolution which tore the country apart five decades ago.
Meanwhile, Panh also took international “armchair revolutionaries” to task for their naive “elegies about theater and spectacle”, as he shows on screen cuttings from foreign (mostly French) newspapers celebrating the “liberation” of Phnom Penh on April 17, 1975.
Indeed, Exile thrives as much when it shows than it tells. Beyond the lyrical – that is, the collage of long-existent historical footage - Panh has delved headlong into the poetic this time round.
In a string of visual tableaux revolving around a set decked up as a bamboo hut, a young man – Panh’s on-screen proxy, probably, played by Sang Nan – sleeps while multiple moons and crows hover above him; the hut becomes, in different scenes, a middle-class home from the 1960s, a shack in the 1970s killing fields, a graveyard blooming with white flowers.
With Panh seemingly in his element, it remains to be he will return to the realist realm anytime soon. But Davy Chou has somehow come in to fill the void. Revolving around the a rural teenager’s new life in Phnom Penh, Diamond Island offers a sturdy story about social dislocation and misguided desires – all seen through the prism of the titular lavish residential suburb at which protagonist Bora (Sobon Nuon) works as a laborer.
Diamond Island is a rite of passage for Bora and, to a certain extent, Cambodia in a 21st century capitalist universe. The film’s leading millennials are now at least two generations removed from the Khmer Rouge era; trauma is being replaced by apprehension and desire.
Vain and virile, Bora and his friends spend their time hoping for better-paid work, good-looking girlfriends and possibly a step up the social ladder which ends at the lavish condos they are building every day.
Just as Bora begins to navigate all this, he runs into his estranged elder brother Solei (Cheanik Nov), who is hanging out with rich kids and living the high life thanks to what he describes as an American “sponsor”.
Dazzled by the bright lights in Solei’s universe, Bora begins to drift away from his construction site friends and his girlfriend Aza (Madeza Chhem) – a move which eventually leads to tragedy and heartbreak.
While set markedly in the titular Phnom Penh suburb, Diamond Island could have been a story happening elsewhere: it’s a story which could easily be told in China (like Jia Zhangke’s The World, maybe), India or any of the Southeast Asian nations.
Such universalism is actually the film’s most interesting facet. Alongside last year’s Dreamland – Steve Chen’s film, also produced by Chou, about the vacuous life of an affluent property agent – Diamond Island bears the testament to the transformation of Cambodian society, with the emergence of a middle class and the social inequality it entails.
Here, a different generation speaks of different challenges in a country caught in the historical slipstream, a state which ties Chou’s story with that of Panh’s and beyond.