Following the sellout success of The Last Reel at the recent Asia House Film Festival, Empire reviews the films on show in London.
“The spotlight falls on another lost tradition in Kulikar Sotho’s The Last Reel, a deeply moving memoir of the golden age of Cambodian cinema that was swept away and all but eradicated by the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s. This would make a perfect companion piece to Davy Chou’s exceptional documentary about Khmer-language film, Golden Slumbers (2011), and The Missing Picture (2013), Rithy Panh’s Oscar-nominated treatise on the disappearance of visual evidence during the Killing Fields era. However, one suspects this will be the sole chance that UK audiences will get to experience it.
College student Ma Rynet is tired of army colonel father Hun Sophy trying to marry her off into a prominent family. She is well aware that biker boyfriend Rous Mony is a bit of a rebel without a cause and concedes she is probably drawn to him because he is the complete opposite of what her reactionary father envisages for her. But her focus shifts when she flees from yet another argument with Sophy and takes refuge in a fleapit cinema.
As she watches a flickering, incomplete melodrama from the early 1970s, Rynet recognises the leading lady as her ailing mother, Dy Saveth. She is amazed to see the careworn woman who has put up with Sophy’s tyranny for so long lighting up the screen with her beauty and talent. So, she asks elderly projectionist Sok Sothun if he knows anything about Saveth and why the last reel of the picture is missing.
As she learns about the assault that Pol Pot launched on film stars and directors (whom he branded enemies of the people for raising false hopes about impossible happy ever afters), Rynet vows to recreate the lost footage by standing in for Saveth in the hope that, on seeing herself in her former glory and recognising how well she has raised her daughter, she will be able to exorcise the ghosts from her past and find some peace for the dreams she lost and the nightmares she had to endure.
Australian screenwriter Ian Masters got the idea for the scenario after visiting an exhibition that Chou had curated. However, it is not difficult to detect the influence of Giuseppe Tornatore’s Cinema Paradiso (1988) in places, particularly in the derelict picturehouse (which is, apparently, the Prasat Meas theatee in Battambang). But Sotho and cinematographer Bonnie Elliott make evocative use of all of their locations around Phnom Penh and it is a real coup that she was able to cast a director of the calibre of Sothun and a screen legend like Saveth, the former Miss Cambodia whose 100+ films included Norodom Sihanouk’s Twilight (1969), Tea Lim Koun’s The Snake King’s Wife (1970), and Hui Keung’s Crocodile Man (1972). Only around 30 of the 300 features made in the decade before Year Zero survive and this is a fitting tribute to them and the lost, but not forgotten artists who made them.”
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