Cannes regular Rithy Panh blurs the line between reality and fiction in “The Burnt Theatre,” his mournful, at times bitter plea for Cambodia’s lost theater tradition. Emphasizing the nation’s need to come to terms with its traumatic past, Panh views the present lack of emphasis on culture as a further withering of Cambodia’s soul. Panh began “Burnt” with a working script, adapted it to reflect the performers’ actual experiences and shot it like a work of fiction. Result lacks structure, however, and is unlikely to have the impact of Panh’s “S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine.” Pic should find play at fests and cable.
During Pol Pot’s dictatorship, the former national theater in Phnom Penh miraculously survived as an occasional venue for propagandistic pageants. But, the theater was ironically burned afterward, in 1994. Since then, during Cambodia’s push to become a “normal” capitalist society, the theater has remained in ruins while structures consistent with the new money-making ethos rise all around it.
Decimated by the Khmer Rouge’s murderous cultural extermination, few of Cambodia’s once much-vaunted traditional performers survived. Some of those who did, however, have returned to the shell of the burnt theater, holding dance classes in the roofless halls and rehearsing plays on its weed-bearing stage.
But after decades of willful cultural destruction, Cambodians now no longer know what it means to be an audience.
Verbalizing this loss, along with their haunted memories of life under the Khmer Rouge, are actors who once proudly trod the theater’s stage. Journalist Chheang Bopha (it’s unclear if she’s a real or scripted reporter) gets the actors to discuss their past triumphs, such as Then Nan Doeun’s fondly remembered performance as Cyrano.
These wistful reminiscences lead to discussions between the actors of both past glories and the difficulties of finding professional fulfillment in a nation that no longer appreciates them.
Most moving is Peng Phan (who also appears in Panh’s “One Evening After the War”), an actress working off a classic case of survival guilt and plagued by psychosomatic illnesses.
But Panh expands the focus, with scenes of impoverished men and women picking over steaming garbage dumps, and children collecting tin cans. It’s as if the helmer’s frustration guides him to include too much, blunting what could have been a sharp commentary on past and present.
Far more powerful are shots of the cavernous theater itself, where the air is consistently punctuated with the sounds of jackhammers working on an enormous casino nearby. This juxtaposition, between the crumbled theater and the rising monument to a new-found capitalism, makes a much stronger statement.
Fictional and documentary elements occasionally jostle uncomfortably with each other, especially in scene transitions which can feel overly artificial. Technical elements are fine.