Though it teeters dangerously close to being a purely promotional pic for a cause and activist, Oz docu helmer Janine Hosking’s “My Khmer Heart” generates surges of genuine emotional involvement as it profiles the colorful and sometimes foolhardy Geraldine Cox, head of the longest-unning refugee center for orphans inside Cambodia. This unlikely yet logical successor to “The Killing Fields” doesn’t avoid showing that Cox’s activities inside a volatile and unstable Cambodia are often questionable, but Cox provides the filmmakers with an unprecedented voice and character through which to observe a densely complex cultural quagmire. After nabbing a share of Hollywood Fest’s best docu award, briskly made docu will attract major fest attention (already including Montreal) for its subject and storytelling drama, with widespread global tube airings to follow.
Peter Ustinov, who gave his name to project and delivers stentorian, unintentionally goofy narration of various Buddha homilies throughout film, intros true story’s theme of universal human rights. Righteous tone is suggested, but it’s blissfully undercut by Cox herself, who is a colorful character brimming with contradictions.
Slogging her wide girth through a muddy stream or prancing about in bold-colored garb and jaunty cowboy hats, Cox takes on burdens with a sense of fun that’s severely lacking in this war-torn country.
Pic establishes Cox as head of an orphanage situated on military property overseen by Princess Marie, wife of one-time prime minister Prince Norodom Ranariddh (co-prime minister with Hun Sen), then shifts back in time to explain how Cox got to her unique and often precarious position.
The Adelaide, Australia-born woman appears to have led a vagabond, promiscuous existence into the ’80s. She was so eager to have a child that she arranged to sleep with a different Bangkok male prostitute each month hoping to become pregnant. She failed, and then her career in foreign diplomacy took her to Cambodia in wake of the Khmer Rouge holocaust.
Cox’s frustrated passion for kids is most potently described in a stunning account about her adopted Cambodian child, who, unbeknownst to Cox, was born with cerebral palsy, autism and epilepsy. Cox was driven to despair by the child’s illnesses and even began to prepare or double-suicide with child, but her last-minute change of heart proved a turning point, compelling her toward charitable caring for the country’s abandoned children.
Hosking is able to draw out Cox’s most personal revelations and is especially sensitive in her filming of a young, poor, widowed mother handing over her three children to Cox for care.
Political intrigue may not be a typical aspect of humanitarian-themed docus, but the Cox story has it aplenty, as the wily but often naive caregiver tries to negotiate with, first, Prince Ranariddh (overthrown by Hun Sen in a bloody ’97 coup), and later, with Hun Sen himself, even though Cox had publicly condemned his murderous politics.
Cox, feeling betrayed on all sides, appears willing to do almost anything to arrange for a new orphanage home, making for an odd blend of unbecoming realpolitik and selfless love.
Vid production is gracefully shot and edited, featuring well-inserted music selections from film composer Thomas Newman and, most unexpectedly, Jocelyn Pook’s music for Stanley Kubrick’s masque scenes in “Eyes Wide Shut.”