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Bringing the Mythical Golden Hong to Life

The following is a piece written for Storyville by Rocking Cambodia: Rise of a Pop Diva director Marc Eberle.

We created animation and moving images to show how the songs and singing helps Srey Thy escape from her poverty stricken life.

Escapism through singing and music is one of the main themes of this film and has many parallels with Cambodian music and cinema of the 1960s.

The most prominent film of that era is Sovannahong, (1967, Yvon Hem).

The hero travels on a golden, mythical bird to a parallel universe in order to find true love and meet his princess. In other words, it is the seminal Cambodian love story from the 1960s, which we wanted to reference by animating Srey Thy onto the golden Hong for her mission to find true love with Julien.

Unlike fairy tales, real life sometimes doesn’t have a conventional “happily ever after” and our character triumphs over the traditional ending as Srey Thy, fed up, ends her relationship with Julien. It is a twist to the classic boy-meets-girl or rags to riches story. That’s what I like about it, it’s not a cliché, but a real story worth telling since it goes against the stereotype. Here the girl falls in love, marries her prince, finds success, but in the end divorces her prince after she’s realised he doesn’t love her and doesn’t provide for her. A very strong statement – by the end of the film she is fully liberated and in charge of her own life.

The scene where she is flying on the mythical golden Hong intercut with the Buddha from Sovannahong shooting love rays at her, refers to the magic realism so prevalent in Asia. People live in a parallel universe compared to a scientific, pragmatic world-view in the west.

Across Cambodia ghosts and supernatural spirits are very real everywhere. People see them with their own eyes. And above all, I thought it’s a strong telling device to include magic realism in a documentary.

A lot of thought went into what animation and images to create and I worked closely with motion graphics artists Tim Huys and Julia Goschke. Together we held an animation workshop at the arts school in Battambang for Cambodian students and drafted, filmed and produced some preliminary animation that was also part of the Galaxy Khmer performance at the end of the film.

Cambodian acrobats also took part in the animation workshop and we filmed and animated several scenes that show Srey Thy exploring her dream world.

It’s a kind of Cambodian rendering of Georges Méliès’ Trip to the Moon (1903), that Srey Thy accompanied live on the opening night of the Cambodian International Film festival with her own song Moon Dream.

When shooting live action for the animation, we shot a whole scene with Srey Thy in a space bar watching Pen Ran performing on stage. It’s a homage to “The Restaurant at the End of the Universe” where people witness the big bang every night as a highlight between drinks and where the party resembles the last dance on the volcano.

In the end we couldn’t use very much of it and only two shots remain, but the idea behind the sequence addresses the heart of Cambodian Rock’n’Roll and what happens when people listen to it.

The remarkable popularity of these songs across contemporary Cambodia and the love people have for them is special. This connection is stronger than a mere fashion statement. Even when they are Cambodian covers of international hits, the composers and singers of the 1960s managed to root them in Cambodian culture and give them something that the originals didn’t have.

Love and heartache feature in most of them, but also landscapes and storytelling in a strong, poetic language that is hard to come by in present day Cambodia, people tell me. Some of the songs reference old folk tales as well as stories from the Reamker, the Cambodian mythical text version of the Ramayana. In this way, the songs and music represent what it means for the people to be truly Cambodian. The songs carry a sonic echo of the past, a yearning back to the ‘golden age’, when everything was better, a time before the darkness, before the Khmer Rouge genocide that destroyed the nation and its culture. But in addition to that, the songs and especially the voices carry a charged echo of loss that gives one the shivers, because if we know the history of the music, we know that most of the artists who can be heard in the song met violent deaths in the killing fields. In other words, inscribed into the echo is both the nostalgic yearning for a golden past full of love and the knowledge that this is forever impossible to re-create, because it all ended in tragic loss.

The idea for this scene was for Srey Thy to meet Pen Ran and bridge the gap that the Khmer Rouge created, so Pen Ran can pass the magic on to Srey Thy.