NYAFF Review: Golden Slumbers


[For the month of July, we will be covering the New York Asian Film Festival and the (also New York-based) Japan Cuts Film Festival, which together form one of the largest showcases of Asian cinema in the world. For our NYAFF coverage, head over here. For Japan Cuts, here.]

After the screening of Golden Slumbers, the Q&A moderator began by talking about what frustated him about the film. Frustration was exactly what I felt while watching Davy Chou’s documentary. On the one hand it’s very stylish and helps bring attention to the lost cinema of Cambodia, which was all but eradicated by the Khmer Rouge during the 1970s. Of the 400 films made in Cambodia prior to the Khmer Rouge, perhaps 30 survive, and mostly in poor condition.

And yet despite the stylishness of Golden Slumbers and its importance as a first document of a lost past, it fails to inform, enrich, and enlighten viewers in the way it seems like it should. At times it feels like it’s less about the history of Cambodian cinema and more about the idea of what the loss of Cambodian cinema means.

A lot of this comes down to questions of presentation, and how some documentaries are about their subject matter while others are about the obsessions of the filmmakers.

Golden Slumbers (Le Sommeil d’Or)
Director: Davy Chou
Rating: NR
Country: France/Cambodia

The descriptions of Cambodian films presented in Golden Slumbers make them sound like these exotic, wondrous spectacles. There are the requisite musicals and melodramas (and probably musical melodramas) you’re bound to encounter in any nation’s cinema, but there are also many fantasy films which sound incredible. To hear about them, you picture works that are part Georges Melies and part Cantonese fantasy film from the 1980s. In one scene, Cambodian filmmaker Ly Bun Yim, in silhouette, describes his lost movie The Seahorse. It sounds like a Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale as retold by a six-year-old with a more active imagination.

In these moments, I think Chou’s emphasis on the idea of the cinema’s absence is quite fascinating. How do you depict films that don’t exist anymore and convey the experience of actually watching them? Several people talk about the movies, there are personal photos from performers, and there are the posters of the films, each one rendered in quaintly oversaturated color. Then there’s the matter of the movie theaters in Cambodia, many of which were hit by grenades and destroyed by the Khmer Rouge. Since then the spaces have been converted — one’s a dwelling for impoverished families, one’s a giant karaoke parlor full of private rooms.

In those karaoke rooms you can find other remnants from the lost cinematic history of Cambodia: songs from the films. Many were released as singles and albums, and they managed to survive the Khmer Rouge since the the EPs and LPs were smuggled out of the country. Many of these albums wound up in Long Beach, California, which has a large Cambodian community. Many of these old songs from the films are covered and rerecorded by contemporary pop acts in the country.

There are some especially powerful interviews with the filmmakers of Cambodia who had to flee the country in order to survive. In an extended sequence of testimony (it feels weightier, really, more like a moment of confession), we watch Ly You Sreang describe his flight from his home country and the heartbreak and hardship he faced when he reached France. It’s gut-wrenching to watch him pour out his heart, and it’s one of the moments in Golden Slumbers where Chou allows his subjects to really express themselves and their concerns. That’s much more interesting and emotional than having Chou mold the subject matter to suit his own intellectual interests.

And that’s the problem with Golden Slumbers despite its more powerful uses of style and the fascinating idea of cinema as absence. All of that information I gave you earlier about how the music from Cambodian films survived? That’s not in the film. I learned that from the Q&A after the film. I also heard about actress Dy Saveth’s life outside of Cambodia, which, though not related to film, seemed like it could have been included in some capacity. And here’s another thing that I learned in the Q&A after the film: the King of Cambodia, Norodom Sihanouk, was a filmmaker. That’s not mentioned anywhere in Golden Slumbers. Even though Sihanouk was making films in French for the elites, it seems like vital information about the country’s film culture that should have been included.

The conceit about absence and omission sadly extends to the films themselves. A handful of Cambodian movies survive in VCD form, and yet almost no clips of these films are shown. At the end, we do get glimpses of them on a dirty brick wall. The picture is hazy, and visual details are ruined by the dark grout between the bricks and the texture of the bricks themselves. It’s a powerful visual metaphor about the destruction of a nation’s cultural output, but it’s also an apt visual metaphor for the style of the film — in chronicling the cinema of Cambodia, Chou has unnecessarily obscured it.

This is a question of documentarian obligation, I suppose. Not all documentaries need to be information dumps or history lessons. I think the essayistic style of Errol Morris is especially beautiful, and the same goes for that lingering, haunting style of Alain Resnais’s short documentaries. But I think with a topic like a nation’s lost cinema, there is some kind of obligation, particularly for one of the first feature-length docs on the subject, to be informative. There are moments of this, particularly in the second half of Golden Slumbers, but it was clear watching the film that the philosophical idea about how lost culture carries forward in history had undermined the more interesting facts of Cambodian film. Sometimes I want ideas instead of artifacts; sometimes I want artifacts instead of ideas.

Yet here’s the most frustrating part: ideas and artifacts are not mutually exclusive. Chou proves this in the better moments of Golden Slumbers, like the moment when The Seahorse is described. We are in dark rooms and see only shadows left behind. Or in a playful recreation of another film’s special effects sequences, we get a sense of Yim’s imaginative ambitions and how he brought those to the screen. Maybe, in an odd way, Chou made a very good documentary about the idea of Cambodian cinema and cultural memory; unfortunately he made it three or four documentaries about Cambodian cinema too early.

If Golden Slumbers does serve one extremely important function, it’s as an enticement toward exploration. I want to see these Cambodian films, and I’d love them to be found, restored, and preserved in some way. By bringing attention to this lost cinema in Golden Slumbers, that’s already happened — prints have been found in California and Toronto. During the post-screening Q&A, Chou said he consciously avoided showing any existing clips of Cambodian films (at least clearly) because he wanted to make people see these movies. Implicit in that statement was the idea that people wouldn’t want to see these Cambodian films if they actually saw clips from them.

With subject matter this rich and this important, people would want to see the movies regardless. There was no need to overthink it; sometimes overthinking ruins the beauty of what you’re thinking about.