Infectious enthusiasm, positive messages and a warm heart are the appealing ingredients of “Poppy Goes to Hollywood Redux,” the first genuine LGBT-themed feature from Cambodia. A comic drama about a homophobic straight guy who hides out with transgender entertainers after witnessing a murder, “Poppy” is rough around the edges and has a few gags that misfire, but its good humor and nicely judged doses of heartache will be enough for many viewers to look past the shortcomings and be swept along by its abundant charms. Director Sok Visal’s recut of the 2016 version that was well received locally is worth the attention of festival programmers.
Visal and co-writers Richard Finn Johnston and Michael Hodgson (also co-scripter of the terrific Cambodian martial arts extravaganza “Jailbreak”) have found the right balance of comical cross-dressing shenanigans and heartfelt pro-tolerance drama. While viewers are left in no doubt about the negative impact of discrimination and rejection on the transgender characters, no-one here wallows in misery. The tone is predominantly upbeat, with pride and self-confidence at the fore.
The conduit for viewers to enter Phnom Penh’s transgender community is Mony (Un Sothea), a no-good young hustler in a serious financial predicament. In desperation, he turns to estranged older brother Lena (Pee Mai), a drag performer at a popular gay nightclub. Lena in turn appeals to her boss, Tony (Chen Choeun), a diminutive, long-haired livewire with a heart of gold beneath his no-nonsense brain for business. Tony eventually ponies up the dough on the proviso that Mony works off his debt as the club’s general gofer.
A rogue who’s not terribly likable at first, Mony blames Lena’s life choices for breaking their mother’s heart and hastening her death. Worse still, he tells Lena and her fellow entertainers, “I don’t like animals of your kind.” Lena and pals step up with strong statements about who they are and how they view the world. Mimi (Tata) gives Mony a firm dressing down. Dina (Peypey Dy) talks about having higher aims than simply finding a foreign boyfriend or a local sugar daddy.
The most impressive member of Lena’s crew is Sasa, played wonderfully well by Poppy, Cambodia’s most famous transgender model-actress. A clever cookie with more life experience than the others, Sasa dispenses spot-on advice to her friends and has a snappy way with words when dealing with intolerant and ignorant people.
Mony’s situation worsens after he witnesses a mob execution near the club. With hit men on his trail, he’s forced to adopt female disguise and joins the dancers on a road trip to faraway Preah Vihear province.
Now known as Poppy, Mony lands at a dilapidated nightclub named Hollywood, owned by veteran transgender performer Lyly (San Mao). Taking a page from the “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert” playbook, the new arrivals march proudly around town to be greeted by everything from open hostility to warm acceptance. Played purely for laughs, and succeeding most of the time, is Mony, trying to maintain his Poppy persona while becoming sexually attracted to Lyly’s adopted daughter Vanny (Duch Lida). The film’s heart beats strongest when Mony begins to reconcile with Lena, and the initially intolerant Village Chief (Um Vithy) gradually changes his attitude from “get out of my village” to one of sympathy and understanding.
Though its crime-thriller aspects are pretty tame, and the investigations of dunderheaded detective An (Chor Pinong) and his much smarter, unnamed female assistant (Kong Chanyoyleak) are strictly routine, “Poppy” is able to smooth over the rough patches with sheer exuberance. Providing major assists in this respect are DP Bun Channvisal’s clean and crisp images, as well as bouncy dance numbers and a toe-tapping soundtrack featuring classic ’60s Cambodian rock. The rest of the craft package is fine on a modest budget.