“Golden Slumbers” is an elegantly assembled and deeply moving remembrance of Cambodian cinema, which shone brightly from 1960 to 1975 with more than 400 productions before the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime destroyed almost every film and executed most of the country’s creative community. Framed around the illuminating and frequently heartbreaking testimony of surviving industry figures, the docu reps an auspicious feature-length debut for young French-Cambodian helmer Davy Chou. A long fest life is indicated, and niche broadcasters should snap it up.
The grandson of Vann Chan, one of Cambodia’s most prolific producers of the era, Chou goes against the grain of conventional documaking by showing only tiny snippets of moving footage. Given that only 30 old Cambodian movies have survived on poor quality VHS and VCD formats, Chou instead invites participants to describe films last seen theatrically 40 and 50 years ago. These recollections of supernatural thrillers, costume spectacles and heartrending melodramas prove so enthralling that clips — especially inferior-quality ones — hardly seem necessary.
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Using stills, lobby cards and old radio promo spots, the docu opens with a vivid picture of how the Cambodian film industry sprang up virtually overnight during the administration of prime minister Father-King Norodom Sihanouk, an enthusiastic patron of the arts and feature filmmaker. Sohong Stehlin, the daughter of Vann Chan and aunt of helmer Chou, eloquently remembers appearing in her father’s first production in 1964 and returning to Phnom Penh in 1979, where only 15 photos remained from his 11 years of nonstop moviemaking.
Overcoming his initial reluctance to participate, distinguished helmer Yvon Hem (“Ynev Bosseba”) visits the site of his Bird of Paradise film studio, which remains a vacant lot in Phnom Penh after being burnt down by the Khmer Rouge. Director Ly You Sreang (“The Sacred Pond”) tells the profoundly sad story of losing his entire oeuvre before returning to Cambodia from France as a successful businessman in the early 2000s.
Cambodia’s first screen goddess and still an active performer and teacher, Dy Saveth (“Love and War,” “The Snake King’s Wife”) gives a marvelous account of starring in approximately 100 films, and will touch many auds’ hearts with her comments about the immortality of Cambodian cinema. Some of the most entertaining stories are told by Ly Bun Yim, a live-wire raconteur who taught himself filmmaking and made a string of hits including “12 Sisters” and “Khmer After Angkor.”
The key speakers’ testimony is delicately interwoven with stills of Phnom Penh’s grand old cinemas and poignant footage showing what became of them. One is a karaoke bar; another houses 16 families. Sprinkled elsewhere are lovely conversations between veteran local cinephiles Ouk Silayouth and Lim Vong Thavy, and older Cambodians telling rapt young listeners about movies they grew up with.
Inventively directed, immaculately lensed and making excellent use of archival soundtrack songs by legendary performers Sin Sisamouth and Ros Serey Sothea, the docu is several impressive notches above standard-issue talking-head fare. The choice of material and manner in which the final images are presented is pure poetry. Tech package is topnotch.