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MONTREAL — A mournful testament to a vibrant piece of global film history almost entirely wiped out of existence by war, Davy Chou’s Golden Slumbers finds the few Cambodians who can recall the 1960-75 heyday of that nation’s cinema and tenderly listens to their stories. Though too esoteric for most viewers, it will be warmly received by hardcore cinephiles and those with an interest in Cambodian history.
Chou, whose grandfather made films in this era, reveals how popular homegrown cinema was at the time: About 400 films were made, stars were born, and movie houses even thrived, as one of the few distractions available, as civil war encroached.
This industry was seen as a threat by the Khmer Rouge, and most filmmakers and actors were killed, but Chou finds a few who survived. Some speak only reluctantly, while others are happy to tell stories. Ly Bun Yim is the star here, dressed in a business suit and making himself sound like a Southeast Asian Georges Méliès; charmingly, Chou recreates some of Yim’s special effects with the old man himself as star.
The onetime filmmakers, actress Dy Saveth and a bantering pair of cinephiles spend a good deal of time recounting the plots of their favorite films, while Chou shows us delightful hand-tinted lobby cards and plays a choice selection of songs recorded for these films. But he doesn’t play clips of the movies they’re discussing, 30 or so of which do exist in badly degraded form.
If this technique seems to suggest that every scrap of celluloid from the era has vanished, that implied loss echoes a very real one that Chou puts off discussing for some time, and then handles delicately: We see no photos of the thousands of mass graves left by the Khmer Rouge, hear no staggering estimates of the millions killed. When the film does discuss the genocide, it’s in personal terms: a filmmaker whose wife was marched off to work and never returned; another whose life fell apart when loved ones assumed he too had died.
Chou does finally acknowledge that some badly aged prints survive — in a closing sequence projecting a montage of strange clips on the brick wall of what once was a cinema and is now a makeshift slum. Those who live in that damaged building now stand staring at the images, distorted both by age and the colored, uneven projection surface, as if witnessing a ghost.
Production Company: Vycky Films
Director-Screenwriter: Davy Chou
Producer: Jacky Goldberg
Director of photography: Thomas Favel
Music: Jérome Harré
Editor: Laurent Leveneur
Sales: Hwa-Seon Choi, Doc & Film International
No rating, 96 minutes
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