City of Ghosts

Phnom Penh is one of those cities that evokes a mythic reaction in people. It is a byword for suffering, for war, torment and the worst excesses of human cruelty. Surprisingly, it is a city that has rarely been depicted in film or literature - perhaps its shadows are too long and dark, leaving people scared to deal with it.
City of Ghosts creates a peculiar kind of Phnom Penh - though doubtless it is the vision that most haunts the popular Western imagination. In this film the city is its own character - post-colonial, almost even post-apocalytptic, it is a place full of addicts, thieves and miscreants. It is the Phnom Penh of the popular imagination, and it is an entertaining and amusing vision, but it bears no resemblance to reality.
This is not a criticism of this odd, atmospheric and hugely entertaining movie. A city should rightly serve as backdrop for an artist's imagination, and all of us carry our own visions and experiences of place. But I can imagine that the Phnom Penh depicted here might perplex an actual resident of the city. One shouldn't watch City of Ghosts for any kind of documentary satisfaction - it is Cambodia as fairy tale or, more appropriately, horror story.
Written and directed by Matt Dillon, one can only suppose that it was inspired by a visit to Cambodia, and I will admit I was impressed by how deeply and humanly the Cambodian story is depicted here. The lead Khmer actor Sereyvuth Kem, an extraordinarily beautiful man and a magnetic presence, is incredibly sympathetic, and his character is brilliantly handled in the script, surprising the viewer by evolving from an incidental bit-part to the central point of the film.

Indeed, all of the Khmer people depicted are possessed of enormous presence, though it might also be said that they function too frequently as exotics and grotesques, scarred and misshapen agents of evil and destruction on what is quite an exceptionally cruel story. Nonetheless it is unique to see "locals" playing such a large role in a Hollywood film.
Though sometimes clunky, the script hangs together, but really this is a movie about atmosphere. Everyone camps it up a little (Depardieu as the violent expatriate bar-keeper is having a great time hamming it up), but the script itself, and its improbable situations, seems almost to encourage such excesses.
I loved James Caan's turn as the affably wicked bad-guy, and the scene in which he sings a Khmer karaoke song while people around him are murdered is one of the scariest and most unsettlingly hilarious I've ever seen. The song, incidentally, is one of the great Khmer torch songs, written by Cambodia's poet-laureate of popular music, Sin Sisamouth - another potentially offensive moment for Khmer viewers, but extraordinary nonetheless.
In truth, I had never actually heard of this movie until I read about it in the Lonely Planet guide to Cambodia. Naturally, it is readily available in the DVD stores of Phnom Penh, though not in what could be called licensed editions. It is actually a backpackers movie par excellence, evincing all the youthful passion for vice, violence and betrayal. And all with the intoxicatingly exotic background of a Cambodia drawn with broad, almost parodic, strokes.
It might sound like I am panning the film, but I'm not - I enjoyed every second, and it excited and intrigued me from beginning to end. I think it is technically accomplished and brilliantly acted. I am just left a little discomfited by the representation of Cambodia and the Khmer people, with Phnom Penh rendered as a kind of natural home of all things wicked. I guess I am conscious that my friends in Phnom Penh would be horrified by such a vision.
Would be interested to know what other people think.


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