With Rithy Panh’s next project announced as a Marguerite Duras-derived drama starring Isabelle Huppert, the Paris-based, Cambodian-born helmer’s “Paper Cannot Wrap Up Embers” can be viewed as a docu-to-drama transitional step. Again returning to his native land, Panh focuses on prostitutes living in one dilapidated Phnom Penn building. Visual polish and rehearsed-sounding exchanges among participants (presumably real-life sex workers) seemingly oblivious to the camera make pic seem more a slice of poetically staged life than verite. Highly specialized item will appeal to select broadcasters; an hourlong version also exists.
Despite occasional levity, the protags — who seem to have no future and barely have a present — leave a despairing impression. They lament the home villages they’re too ashamed to return to, abusive clients and madams, paltry pay, past abortions and so on. One “older” woman (at 34) has seen four of six children die (and a fifth stolen), and the low-end tricks she turns barely buy her a bowl of rice per day. Another is dying of AIDS, with no money for meds. Panh’s approach holds attention, but also has a certain stilted, dirge-like monotony.