Cambodian horror films tearing up regional screens


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In a striking promotional campaign that seems to merge the realms of fantasy and reality, an ethereal figure is haunting the hallways of movie theatres in Laos. Photo The Phnom Penh Post 

PHNOM PENH – In a striking promotional campaign that seems to merge the realms of fantasy and reality, an ethereal figure is haunting the hallways of movie theatres in Laos.

This gaunt, almost otherworldly creature is the face of the chilling Cambodian feature film The Dark Mother, which has been sending shivers down the spines of moviegoers.

With her pallid complexion and haunting gaze, she personifies the film’s spectral themes. Her presence in a bustling cinema lobbies, draped in a sombre yet elegant garment that whispers tales of the macabre, bridges the gap between the audience’s everyday life and the ghostly narrative awaiting them on the silver screen.

As audiences in Laos encounter this spectral envoy, The Dark Mother promises to be an unforgettable journey into the supernatural elements of Cambodian storytelling.

The Dark Mother tells the poignant tale of Nuon, whose life was tragically cut short during the birth of her fourth child.

Her demise remained unknown to her children, who unknowingly kept company with her spectral presence.

As time passes, the grim reality comes to light with the discovery of her mortal remains. Nuon, bound by a mother’s undying love, continues her ethereal vigil, guarding her offspring from the shadows and ensuring their well-being.

Her spectral heart is burdened with sorrow when her children depart to join their father, leaving her to linger alone in the realm between worlds.

Worldwide appeal

The Dark Mother, by Sastra Film is one of other two local films that have found international releases this year.

Pok Borak, director of the Department of Film and Cultural Promotion at the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts, explains that The Ritual: Black Nun, The Dark Mother and Rent Boy have all been screened internationally in early 2024, with the possibility of more in the future.

“Among these, The Ritual: Black Nun has not only been screened in Thailand but also in various countries in Europe, the West, India, and Vietnam,” he adds.

He says the Kingdom’s filmmakers have been diligently working to enhance their filmmaking techniques, including visuals, lighting, sound, editing and acting.

Several Sastra Film productions have received overseas screenings, including Don’t Close Your Eyes, the first Cambodian film to be screened in Laos, Việt Nam, and Taiwan.

The Dark Mother has been shown in theatres across the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Laos, with five or six other countries currently under negotiation.

Khmer pride

Hong Chan Sovoleak, one of the lead actors, took to social media to share her pride.

“I am very happy and proud of the opportunities I have received and that a story that belongs to Cambodia is travelling across Asia. Thanks to Sastra Film for giving me this chance,” she wrote.

Interestingly, Indonesia has signed two contracts with the Cambodian production, one for the rights to screen the film in cinemas and another for the rights to remake an Indonesian adaptation.

“This is a happy and proud moment that reflects the growth of the Cambodian film industry. When other countries buy the rights to produce our films, it shows they value our storytelling and filmmaking,” said Bun Chan Nimol, CEO of Sastra Film.

She adds that when her films are screened domestically, they are not undervalued, noting that in the digital age, if Cambodian movies are of high enough quality, foreign media will certainly be interested in showcasing them.

Upon initial viewing, the preview for the latest horror hit, The Ritual: Black Nun, might be mistaken for a production hailing from the West.

Yet, as the narrative unfolds before the audience, the distinct characteristics of a Khmer film emerge, firmly rooted in the Kingdom’s rich cultural heritage and distinct national identity.

The film artfully weaves together motifs of unwavering familial dedication under any conditions and delves into the deep-seated customs of the Kingdom.

Additionally, it intertwines a narrative about an outsider who becomes enamoured with Cambodia and its cultural richness.

Placing the Kingdom centre stage

“I believe it will become an effective tool for promoting Khmer culture, and driving tourism,” said Sem Visal, the 44-year-old writer and director of the film.

Showcasing a blend of Cambodian and international talent, the film takes the audience on a visual journey through Cambodia’s scenic grandeur and locales steeped in cultural importance.

Iconic sites such as the majestic Angkor Wat Temple and the revered Wat Bakan in Pursat province serve as more than just backdrops; they are integral to the tapestry of the film.

Sacred Buddhist statues, significant in both spiritual and plot terms, also feature prominently, underscoring the story’s deep ties to the spiritual heritage of the Kingdom.

Controversial neighbours

However, Chan Nimol acknowledged that among the many countries that acquired the rights to screen the movie The Dark Mother, obtaining a release in Thailand was very challenging.

“Thailand was the hardest to negotiate,” she tells The Post.

“Countries like Malaysia, Indonesia and Laos are very welcoming, including both the general public and distributors. But in Thailand, I faced a lot of pressure, although the Thai distributor experienced similar pressure,” she adds.

Chan Nimol, who has been passionate about the film industry since childhood, expresses her feeling that Thai people do not seem to place much value on Cambodian films.

She explains that she has taken the film to many foreign countries, but does not want to overlook Thailand because it is a neighbouring nation.

Over the past few decades, Cambodia’s film productivity has decreased, as there is a perception that Thailand continues to release a wider variety of films.

Chan Nimol mentions that when Cambodia produces stories related to faith, some Thais perceive them as copies, as both countries share similar beliefs and traditions.

She recalls the reaction from several Thai people when The Dark Mother was officially released in Thailand. The first screening did not go well, and it was considered a failure. She describes it as “losing before entering the ring”.

However, she asserts that many Thai people welcome the screening of Cambodian films that share similarities with theirs.

“While biased comments circulate on some social media platforms, scholars have shown positivity and publicly defended us. Several Thai actors have even shared our story on their social media platforms,” she says.

“Regarding the controversy, we understand that it’s inevitable given the similarity in culture and historical civilization. It was inevitable,” Borak tells The Post.

Future successes

Chan Nimol reveals that between July and August, she will be releasing The Dark Mother more widely than any other Khmer production before it.

“It will be screened in many countries beyond Southeast Asia; it will even reach Europe,” she says.

She explains that the film, which draws inspiration from American and South Korean cinema and has obtained licensing from both, will astonish audiences. She also aims to showcase Khmer identity prominently.

“If our film gains significant recognition it will have a positive impact on our tourism industry, in the same way that watching South Korean movies makes us want to visit Korea, or watching Chinese movies makes us want to visit China,” she says.

Visal urged the public to come together and back the Cambodian film industry, in the same way they support other sectors, to reach equality with other nations. He believes that the quality of the film casts a positive light on the reputation of the Kingdom’s filmmakers.

“We must all unite, if we want to achieve parity with other countries,” he says.

Borak explains that its not just about foreign audiences; local moviegoers also possesses the ability to analyse and discern the quality of films. Enhancing both the quality and content of the story is crucial to attracting both local and international audiences. – The Phnom Penh Post