Sotho Kulikar addresses Cambodia's cinematic peaks and historical troughs through a family drama about a young woman's rite of passage through filmmaking.
With The Last Reel, Cambodian cinema's resurgence as a filmmaking force continues apace with, again, some help from beyond Southeast Asia – or, specifically, Australia, from which the film's screenwriter-producer, cinematographer, editor and soundtrack composer hail. But at the helm is a Cambodian director, and at its center a distinctly local story designed to address how different generations struggle with the country's suppressed and still unresolved Khmer Rouge-inflicted traumas.
The cultural specificity of the tale is also given a universal touch, as Sotho Kulikar – who worked on the Cambodian shoot of Hollywood films like Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, and a rare female filmmaker in what remains a patriarchal society – conjures remarkable performances from her lead actresses in an attempt to reflect historical schisms through the tropes of rebellious-daughter family drama.
The Last Reel could be considered the fictional-feature take on themes broached in Cambodian documentaries securing widespread acclaim on the festival circuit in the past two years. With a nod to the issues brought to prominence by established auteur Rithy Panh's Oscar-nominated The Missing Picture and up-and-coming archivist-cum-director Davey Chou's celebration of Khmer-language cinema in Golden Slumbers, Kulikar and her screenwriter Ian Masters (who wrote of being inspired by an exhibition curated by Chou) conjured a story in which a young woman rediscovers his parents' buried pasts through an engagement with images flickering on screens in long-abandoned picture palaces. Offering a mix of humanistic drama and a celebration of the powers of cinema, The Last Reel's Asian stops – first Tokyo, then Singapore, and finally at home in Phnom Penh – will definitely be just a prologue to bookings beyond its nearby shores.
The character undergoing the film's central rite of passage is Sophoun (Ma Rynet), who begins the film as a listless young college student whiling away her time as some kind of moll of her leather-jacketed, motorbike-cradling hoodlum boyfriend Veasna (Rous Mony, star of 2012 Venice entry Ruin). All this seems to be a reaction against the tyranny at home, where she's disparaged by her decorated-soldier father (Hun Sophy), and an arranged marriage into a prominent family and books about "moral conduct for women" await.
It's during one of her escapades with Veasna that she first discovers cracks in her family, as she wanders around the disused cinema she frequents and discovers her mother's photograph plastered across the wall. It's at this point that she learns of how she's not the first rebel in the family: the meek, middle-aged woman at home was actually once a famous actress, the star of a film made none other by the unassuming caretaker of the theater-turned-garage. When told the final reel of the retained film was lost during the Khmer Rouge years,Sophoun took it on herself to try and bring that movie – and her mother – to life, an attempt which turned out to reveal much more about the anguish suffered by all the jaded elders around her.
The Last Reel is obviously Kulikar's gesture of the need to bring Cambodia and its cultural legacy alive – not just for the benefit of those nostalgic about their good old days, but also a new generation born after the 1990s and basically unaware (and uninterested) about the Khmer civilization's halcyon days and how it's all swept away within four years by Pol Pot and his murderous cadres. In this sense, The Last Reel's trump card lies in its metatexuality, of introducing young hipsters to figures they barely know: playing the mother is actually Dy Saveth, an iconic figure in Cambodian cinema in the pre-Khmer Rouge times and one of the few actors who survived the pogroms (she was out of the country when the extremists took power in 1975, and went into exile until the 1990s). Meanwhile, cast in the vanquished-filmmaker role is Sok Sothun, a real-life director who lived through the purges and went on to study cinema in Moscow in the 1990s. (The derelict cinema shown on screen is the now-abandoned Prasat Meas theater in the city of Battambang.)
The Last Reel is beautifully shot, with Bonnie Elliott's camerawork easing the film's gradual relocation from the neon-lit, nocturnal urban frenzy in the beginning to poignant pastoralism towards the end, as the story draws to a close with a delicate homage to the traditional aesthetics of classical Khmer culture and cinema. But this is not just about mere reconciliation or putting ghosts to rest, Masters' screenplay also harks to how the past doesn't just haunt but actually lingers in a cycle, as the high-brass ruling Cambodia today are revealed to have just switched uniforms back in 1979, or when the unjust measures in the social system of the past – not just among the late 1970s killing fields, but further beyond to the underbelly of Cambodia's glorious heyday – are still peddled around as norms.
Beneath the tranquility, a simmering fury abounds – an emotion burning brightly in performances all around, ranging from Rynet and Mony's vivacity to the veterans' internalized anger and self-disgust. The Last Reel is more like part of a new exciting beginning than the end, one foreign-assisted step (like the Paris-based Panh and Chou, whose films are largely financed by European funds) back to the consolidation of a national cinema in Cambodia.