Angkor's Children

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 04/27/15 13:00:44

"Cambodia, two generations later."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

SCREENED AT INDEPENDENT FILM FESTIVAL BOSTON 2015: It's a weird thing to admit, but having seen a documentary or two about the Khmer Rouge a couple months back, and not regularly hearing much about Cambodia as it is now compared to those horror stories, it's easy to think of the country still being on that state, or just coming out of it. That was part of the draw of "Angkor's Children" - to see Cambodia in the present tense - and it's an enjoyable way to do so.

Of course, even thirty-odd years on, one can't talk about Cambodia without discussing the Khmer Rouge; they were so successful, on a practical level, at clearing the slate of their country that practically an entire generation was lost, in particular teachers and artists. It's something just starting to rebound now, with the film introducing the young women at the vanguard of this resurrection: Phunam, a circus artist; Sreyov, one of the few young people singing smot, a Buddhist funerary chant; and Saem, a garment worker who sings in Messenger Band, whose overt emphasis on women's and political issues is highly unusual for the culture.

Though all three get a segment that introduces them, Saem and her band fall by the wayside once director Lauren Shaw and her team circle around for a second pass. Their story is worthy enough, but perhaps doesn't fit the same narrative as the rest, where director Lauren Shaw can focus not just on the young women, but give some time to the Cambodian people and institutions that are trying to preserve - and practically resurrect - their culture. It is, on the other hand, kind of amusing to see interview subjects like a local legislator who had been happy answering questions about removing traditional culture start hemming and hawing when the subject turned to things that might cast business in a bad light.

Phunam and Sreyov do get second looks as they travel abroad to perform, and there's a certain joy to it. Phunam, for instance, is pretty amazing in every respect, and not just for being incredibly limber: A child of a forced marriage at a mass ceremony that (perhaps unsurprisingly) devolved into domestic abuse, she still comes across as dedicated and incredibly cheerful, taking great joy in her gift and already acting as a mentor to younger children, even if her mother seems to have a difficult time with how tactile her art form is. Sreyov faces similar issues, especially when she recounts being without money after coming to Phnom Penh to study, but her relationship with her teacher gives some insight into the attempts to connect the aging pre-Khmer Rouge masters with youth, as well as show how confident she is.

(Apropos of nothing, "smot" is a verb as well as a noun, which I found great for reasons I cannot describe.)

Even the better part of two generations on, there is still work to do in order to re-establish Cambodia as a culture in addition to a place on the map. It's interesting to see some of the people who will be involved, at least for a brief glimpse.

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