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The Land of the Wandering Souls

A documentary about Cambodian laborers laying Southeast Asia's first fiber-optic cable across their country doesn't sound like must-see viewing, but in the hands of director Rithy Panh it becomes an involving elegy to a whole generation robbed of a better start in life by the Khmer Rouge era. Trimming by some 20 minutes would do no harm at all, making this tidily-lensed docu solid fare for educational and specialized channels.

A documentary about Cambodian laborers laying Southeast Asia’s first fiber-optic cable across their country doesn’t sound like must-see viewing, but in the hands of director Rithy Panh it becomes an involving elegy to a whole generation robbed of a better start in life by the Khmer Rouge era. Trimming by some 20 minutes would do no harm at all, making this tidily-lensed docu solid fare for educational and specialized channels.

Cambodian-born Panh has lived in Paris since age 15, but there’s the same unforced empathy with his less privileged country folk as he showed in his debut feature, “Rice People” (1993). Subject provides an excuse for a subtle panorama of life lived at a subsistence level, with workers paid a pittance for digging a meter-deep channel by hand. For them, it’s just short-term employment to feed their families – one funny-sad scene has a man trying to explain exactly what fiber optics are – but with the ever-present possibility of detonating unexploded bombs with their hoes. With no commentary or phony emotion, Panh taps into the workers’ quiet pragmatism, battered hopes and frequent good humor in miserable circumstances.

The Land of the Wandering Souls

France

Production: An INA/La Sept-Arte production. (International sales: INA, Paris.) Produced by Cati Couteau. Directed, written by Rithy Panh.

Crew: Camera (color, DV), Prum Mesar; editors, Marie-Christine Rougerie, Isabelle Roudy; music, Marc Marder. Reviewed at Edinburgh Film Festival (Imagining Reality), Aug. 19, 2000. Original title: La terre des ames errantes. Cambodian dialogue. Running time: 98 MIN.

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