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Cambodian Pushes for Revival of Film Industry


TAKHMAU, Cambodia — Cambodia's once-robust movie world lies beneath the rice paddies, where the bones of glamorous stars molder together with miles of classic celluloid that Khmer Rouge zealots strung out to measure distances.

It's been more than two decades since the fall of the fanatic communist regime, but there's been no return to the heyday of Cambodian cinema, which created more than 300 films, some recognized across Asia.

Today, there's not a single 35mm camera in the impoverished country. There's only one movie theater, compared with 33 before the Khmer Rouge terror. And just half a dozen feature films, virtually all made with significant foreign input, have appeared in the past 23 years.

Despite the odds, a handful of die-hards are determined to revive Cambodian film. One is Ly Bun Yim, a rare survivor from the old days, when he was probably Cambodia's finest and most successful director.

"Before I die, I want to share my knowledge with a new generation--free of charge," says the 60-year-old moviemaker.

He proudly gives a tour of a three-story structure, fringed by palm trees, that he is building as a filmmaking center on the southern outskirts of the capital, Phnom Penh. For now, its rooms feature mounds of cement, piles of planks and raw brickwork. But in his mind's eye, Ly Bun Yim sees glittering sets, an auditorium and a classroom filled with budding actors and directors.

He dreams that Cambodia's revived movie industry will co-exist proudly with foreign imports, as in other Asian nations, such as Japan, Taiwan and Thailand.

Ly Bun Yim, a farmer's son who fell in love with photography as a boy, is now gathering funds to purchase a camera and other equipment and plans to direct several films, including a Romeo-and-Juliet story based on a classic Cambodian tale.

One of the first truly home-grown products of recent decades is now showing to audiences willing to pay three times the ticket price for foreign films. "Decho Domen" tells of a womanizing hero who drove out Thai invaders in the 12th century.

The film cost $160,000 to make--a huge sum by Cambodian standards--and was shot on video, which was remastered onto 35mm film in California.

Other recent Cambodian films have depended on foreign funds and technical expertise. Last year's "Puos Keng Kon," or "Giant Snake," was as much Thai as Cambodian, and Rithy Pan, arguably the country's finest director, lives mostly in France and depends on foreign backing.

Cambodians shot their first movies in the 1940s, when Prince Sihanouk, now the king, churned out films that won little praise from serious critics but racked up awards at his own film festivals.

Still, he helped usher in the golden era, from the mid-1960s to the early '70s, when Cambodians flocked to their own films despite the popularity of imports from India, Hong Kong and the West. Then in 1975, the Khmer Rouge crushed the U.S.-backed government.

"The Khmer Rouge regarded movies as entertainment for the bourgeoisie that had to be destroyed, and that included the actors, directors and producers themselves, as well as the equipment and movies," says Som Sokun, who heads the Ministry of Culture's film department.

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