Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Two Movies Set in Cambodia

I watched The Killing Fields, a 1984 movie about the Khmer Rouge years in Cambodia. It had been recommended to me for context before we went there, but I resisted. I don't usually watch movies with "kill" in the title. Heck, I didn't even see "To Kill a Mockingbird." I hoped it wouldn't be too gory, but seeing as I had it all in my head anyway, I decided to get it over with. I expected it to be a personal story, setting the scene and then following an individual from the Phnom Peng evacuation, to the rice fields, to arrest and interrogation, and finally to the titular fields. It was pretty much that, the requisite landmine exploding almost comically close the the moment I said "we haven't had any landmines yet," but rather than seeing more than I could bear, I was disappointed that there was not enough.

The film opened with a brief historical narration over a scene of a child on the back of a water buffalo in rural Cambodian scenery, but then cut to a group of rude Western journalists. While the experience of a foreign journalist in Cambodia in 1975 is interesting, it's limited to a few dozen people and doesn't have repercussions on the state of the country today the way the experience of millions of Cambodians does. I knew it was a framing device, to give the lives of these unknown people an American context, and, through the mobility of the foreigners, to tell the story with a wider perspective. It turns out to be a true story, too, about the relationship between an American journalist Sidney and his translator Pran, but it was still irritating. I didn't find any of the journalists to be sympathetic characters, and to me every scene of reporters typing, developing film, or arguing over access to the telex machines was a waste of film minutes that could have been spent on the Cambodians. When it becomes clear that Pran will be handed over to the Khmer Rouge, the camera even focuses on Sidney's reaction, not Pran's.

The film was made in 1983 to 1984, still not a stable time in Cambodian history, so it was filmed in neighbouring Thailand. Many of the actors are Thai, and Haing Ngor who plays the lead Cambodian was half ethnic Chinese. He wasn't a professional actor, and was originally hired as a technical expert. He had similar experiences to the man he portrayed, and his actual story is even better than the one he won the Academy Award for. They tried to hire Khmer people for the roles, but all trained Cambodian actors had been killed by the Khmer Rouge.

Of the suffering in the camps, Ngor kept telling the director, "No, it was worse! It was worse!" and the director had to shake his head and tell him that it was just a movie. Movie standards for violence were much more restrictive back then. The most violence they did show was doubly distanced from the viewer, by having us see Sidney back in New York watching it on TV, and by the standard cinematic technique of replacing the sound effects with classical music. Suffering was implied, but they didn't make me feel it. Perhaps it was a pacing issue. By contrast, the scene in Lost where Richard is chained up in the grounded slave ship is silly fiction, but they take the time to tell the story. Perhaps what we saw was still pretty edgy for 1984. In filming The Killing Fields, they borrowed a woman's rice paddy to dress as a killing field and she walked out into it in the morning, only to see the set dressed with simulated decomposing corpses. "She had to be given a day's rest," says the director's commentary.

I watched it with a friend, then we switched gears by making it a double-header with Tomb Raider, an Indiana Jones movie clone starring Angelina Jolie's boobs. The connection is that it is partially set and filmed on location in Cambodia. Sadly, real life fighting has broken out recently on the Cambodia-Thailand border in the vicinity of some Khmer ruins, a new flare-up in a territorial dispute that has been running for over a hundred years, between two countries that have been fighting on and off for over a thousand years.


nec Timide said...

In 1984 I thought that watching The Killing Fields would be a bit exploitive. As I think you're trying to say, the movie just didn't seem to treat the subject the way it should have. I finally saw the movie a few years ago and that just convinced me I was right 25 years ago.

Anonymous said...

I saw The Killing Fields when it first came out. It wasn't particularly effective then either. Some scenes worked, like the one in the paddy, but mostly not.

Sarah said...

The Killing Fieldswas still a hard movie to watch, softened though it may be. I never did get around to watching Tomb Raider .. or playing the video game, which I gather was their audience.

Aviatrix said...

Tomb Raider was a surprisingly competent movie for a video game spinoff. It's basically an Indiana Jones movie with boobs instead of a fedora. She solves puzzles using intelligence, research and knowledge, gets what she needs through charisma and influence, travels to exotic places, faces semi-supernatural ancient technology and uses weapons, agility and reflexes to defeat the bad guys. It requires no knowledge of the game.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Aviatrix, cute post (I love the "starring anjie's ..." comment :-D). You are correct, Killing Fields was a little hard, maybe a little manipulative, but still important. But remember the great line, Those who fail to learn from history are bound to repeat it.

You NEED to watch To Kill a Mockingbird, it is wonderful (not actually unbiased, I named my daughter after Harper Lee).

Nice website, I just found this and will check back frequently.

-An IFR single-engine pilot in Missouri