The re-emergence of Cambodian cinema continues impressively with “The Last Reel,” a well-produced, thematically rich drama about a rebellious female student in contemporary Phnom Penh whose fractured family relationships are connected to a movie made just before the Khmer Rouge seized power in 1975. Though it attempts to cover a little too much ground and runs a tad long, this foreign-language Oscar entry has its heart and most other elements in the right place. A bright debut for Kulikar Sotho, the first Cambodian woman to direct a narrative feature since Ung Kanthouk (1970’s “10,000 Regrets”), the film was released locally in September following a long and successful festival run, which included the 2014 Spirit of Asia award at Tokyo.
Like several recent documentaries, including Davy Chou’s “Golden Slumbers” (2012), “The Last Reel” looks back to the 1960s and ‘70s “Golden Age” of Cambodian cinema, when more than 300 features were produced. Nearly every film from this period was destroyed and almost the entire creative community of Cambodia was murdered by the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime. The screenplay of “The Last Reel,” by British scribe Ian Masters, successfully examines how the country’s tragic past continues to impact those who survived, and what it means to young Cambodians born after that terrible time.
The face of new, go-ahead urban Cambodia is vividly shown in the opening sequence filmed at Koh Pich (Diamond Island), an upscale property development and flashy entertainment area frequented by Phnom Penh’s bright young things. In the middle of the neon-lit action is Sophoun (Ma Rynet), a business student and part-time karaoke bar singer. More concerned with fun than study, Sophoun hangs out with Veasna (Rous Mony, from the 2013 Venice entry “Ruin”), a bad boy who runs with a motorcycle-riding gang and isn’t afraid to fire his pistol in the air when things don’t go his way. Very much a modern Cambodian girl railing against a patriarchal system, Sophoun keeps her social activities secret from her super-strict army colonel father, Bora (Hun Sophy), and her ailing mother (Dy Saveth).
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With an arranged marriage to a general’s son looming, Sophoun is urged by her mother to observe the “Chbab Srey” (“Rules for Girls”), a centuries-old text instructing women to be quiet and submissive. Devoted to her mother but in no mood to accept her assigned role, Sophoun runs away from home and holes up in a derelict cinema now used as a parking lot for motorcycles.
Thus far a traditional juvenile delinquency drama, “The Last Reel” moves into more exciting and enriching territory when Sophoun watches a film being projected by the cinema’s elderly proprietor, Vichea (Sok Sothun), a movie director who survived the Khmer Rouge time. His prized possession is a 35mm print of “The Long Way Home, ” a costume romance he completed just days before the fall of Phnom Penh. Furthermore, it turns out Sophoun’s mother played the lead in “The Long Way Home.” On first impression it might seem implausible for her to have never revealed such an important part of her past, but as the story progresses, most auds would surely agree that there are powerful and entirely credible reasons that she chose not to share this information with her daughter.
The ability of cinema to captivate and inspire is marvelously written on the face and embedded in the actions of Sophoun. Entranced by the sight of her mother on screen and disappointed when Vichea tells her that the last reel of “The Long Way Home” is missing, she resolves to become a filmmaker and complete the final scenes herself. Such an act, she hopes, will bring happiness to her mother and heal family rifts. Injecting a nice dose of let’s-put-on-a-show optimism into the proceedings, Sophoun enlists the help of university film professor Socheat (Khloot Rattana) and his enthusiastic students.
With the basic plot of “The Long Way Home” mirroring events in the present, Masters’ screenplay brings the horrors and legacy of the Khmer Rouge into a powerful contemporary context. As details come to light about the marriage of Sophoun’s parents and how Vichea managed to survive a regime that specifically targeted artists, potent questions are asked about how collective memory is shaped and what price must be paid when long-buried truths are revealed. One of the movie’s most telling lines is Vichea’s declaration to Sophoun that “people my age have lived many lives in a single lifetime.”
Such ruminations are neatly embedded in the driving central story of Sophoun using cinema to find her own voice and construct an artwork that will ultimately show her true love and loyalty to family. In a big-picture sense, the film achieves this ambition admirably. It’s not all smooth sailing in some smaller details: The dialogue occasionally veers toward the prosaic, and Veasna’s transformation from hot-headed hood to kind-hearted lead actor in Sophoun’s production seems a little too good to be true. The last reel of “The Last Reel” is somewhat overcrowded with resolutions and reconciliations, but not to any serious detriment of the overall viewing experience.
Coming from a successful entrepreneurial background that includes a tourism company and another providing location and logistics support for large-scale international features filmed in Cambodia (“Tomb Raider” among them), Sotho shows confidence and a steady hand in her first stint as a film director. She elicits fine performances from the main cast, highlighted by a particularly noteworthy girl power-plus turn from talented leading lady Rynet.
The casting of Saveth and Sothun lends an additional note of poignancy. An adored national icon regarded as Cambodia’s greatest-ever female movie star, Saveth left Cambodia just before the Khmer Rouge time and has appeared only infrequently on screen since her return in the 1990s. Sothun, who survived the genocide, studied cinema in Moscow in the ‘80s and has directed Cambodian movies including “War of the Twins” (2008).
One of the best-looking Cambodian films of recent times, the pic is beautifully lensed by Aussie d.p. Bonnie Elliott. Her palette of saturated primary colors in sequences showing the bright new world of Sophoun’s Phnom Penh is expertly balanced with earthier tones in images of the capital as seen through the eyes of older characters who remember, and sometimes choose not to remember, much darker days. A subtle score by Aussie composer Christopher Elves rounds out a tip-top technical package.