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Producers Recall ‘Golden Age’ of Film

At its height, Cambodia’s film industry produced movies that could be seen in neighboring countries. But that was a long time ago. Following its destruction under the Khmer Rouge, the industry never recovered.

“We need to do much better, otherwise our movies cannot compete with foreign films,” said Ly Bun Yim, a producer from the “Golden Age” of Cambodian filmmaking, which lasted from around 1961 to 1975.

Gone are the days when films like “Pos Keng Kang,” or “The Snake King’s Wife,” would appear in Bangkok cinemas, he said, as a guest on “Hello VOA” Monday.

Other films, like “Puthisen Neang Kong Rey,” or “The Twelve Sisters,” were successful abroad and “opened the way for Khmer films to be seen in foreign cinemas,” he said.

The Khmer Rouge takeover ended that, as they abolished cinema along with many other aspects of Cambodian culture and society.

Ly Bun Yim’s brother, You Sreang, who also produced movies in the halcyon days, said his works—10 films in the 1960s—had mostly vanished. “Negatives and prints of many films were destroyed or are missing,” he said, also as a guest on “Hello VOA.”

Ly Bun Yim made 21 films, shot on 35 mm, he said.

“Now I have in my hands only three movies,” he said, calling the loss a historic catastrophe that cannot be undone.

Now 67, Ly Bun Yim is still looking for financiers and other support to produce films.

“I became a movie writer and producer when I was 19 years old,” he said. “I have never copied international movie styles. I try to do my own style. I was never taught how to write, but before writing I think carefully about making stories that are meaningful to the audience.”

He works to make either modern or historical films, though historical endeavors end up costing more, he said.

When the Khmer Rouge were ousted, in 1979, Cambodian filmmaking had a chance to make a comeback. Eager to watch films they’d been banned from seeing, Cambodians were anxious to see a new wave of movies.

Eventually, though, they discovered the quality had suffered, and they quit going to the cinema. The industry never recovered, and eventually foreign films entered the country, from a trickle to a flood, he said.

Ly Bun Yim said Cambodian films still suffer artistically, from poor production values, bad acting and weak storylines. There is no national film school and little opportunity for actors, writers and directors to learn the trade or develop their careers. Likewise, there is a dearth of sound editors, lighting and sound technicians, set designers and make-up and costume artists.

Still, Ly Bun Yim is determined to continue in the industry. He has opened a joint venture under his old company’s name, “Flash Diamond Movie Production,” and has built a studio and auditorium in Takhmao, a Kandal province district outside Phnom Penh.

He’s excited to teach budding actors effective dramatic techniques, he said, as now audiences tend to look down on Cambodian acting. He’ll teach filmmakers to strengthen their ideas and turn them into films, he said, adding that if he could find a donation of half a million dollars, he could bring Cambodian cinema back to a standard competitive with foreign films.