The Flicks has to be one of my favourite places in all of Cambodia.
Tucked away on street 95, a jump-cut from the bustling Monnivong Boulevard, it’s a cute little set up, with a friendly wooden-floored lounge-bar giving way to a cozy air-conditioned auditorium. DVDs are projected onto a great quality, floor-to-ceiling screen, which you can enjoy from the comfy seats, or even lying down if you prefer.
You can have a few while you view too – I’ve quite a taste for the palm wine, and even braved the Mekong whisky, albeit well disguised with Coke – it must have been a lean month-end.
Martin and Jeanette came from New Zealand to start the place not much more than a year ago, and they give the place a lovely welcoming feel. Jack the dog is equally friendly, though thankfully less demonstratively following his recent operation. I’ve also developed a soft spot for Barraing, the lodger / bartender whose name means white-man (Frenchman), but is in fact 100% Cambodian – there’s a story there.
The film choice is great too – essentially whatever just arrived at the Russian Market. Favourites have included New Year Baby, a revealing documentary about a Cambodian woman returning for the first time since she fled as a child; Micmacs, a stylish comedy from Amélie director Jean-Pierre Jeunet, and The Lives of Others, the powerful drama about life in communist East Germany. There is often also a Kiwi flavour, with Topps Twins, Boy, and Kenny recent hits. A caveat to this is Men Who Stare At Goats which was a monumental stinker, but you can’t win them all.
As well as Flicks, Phnom Penh now also boasts a newly renovated MetaHouse, part of the German Cultural Centre near the waterfront. It’s a cool, white concrete building, housing an excellent art-gallery below and semi-outdoor screening area above. Apart from films, they also serve up dreamy Hoegaarten beer and lip-smacking Flammenkuchen (pizza-breads). They show a commendable range of local documentaries, giving many young filmmakers their chance to shine. I recently saw the Cambodian premiere of Enemies of the People here, reviewed in an earlier blog. The cinema manager showed it three nights running (to packed houses), despite being denied a government screening permit – big respect to him for sticking his neck out.
These two gems more than make up for the lack of any bigger cinemas showing Western films in Phnom Penh. In fact there are very few other cinemas at all – I do intend to see a Khmer film soon, though I haven’t rushed to watch the stock martial art / shoot-em-up fare they seem to churn out.
This is actually quite sad – there was something of a golden age of Cambodian cinema in the late 1960s, when the French influence was still felt. King Sihanouk himself contributed by producing no less than nine feature films, and for a time Cambodian films looked set to make it on a world stage. Tragically this cinematic heritage was wiped out, along with so much else, by the Khmer Rouge in the late 1970s – and there are still only glimpses of a recovery.
So much for the cinematic delights of Phnom Penh. I am a day’s journey and a world away in my dusty little village on the Thai border. Cinemas there are none. There aren’t even many tellys, and these often draw quite a crowd to watch the twin delights of Khmer boxing or karaoke hits. And I do miss it – DVDs on my computer are great, but it’s not the same as cinema is it?
Imagine then my delight tonight when I was told that the racket coming from the grounds of the primary school wasn’t in fact another bloody wedding, but rather a traveling cinema – joy!
Even better, entry was just 1,500 riels, even less than the 2,000 (half a dollar) I was quoted. Before the film there were numerous distractions - first I headed for the dicing games. I was soon persuaded to place my remaining 500 riels on a lucky fish. And so it was, winning me four times my money back, even though I had no idea how to play – definitely beginner’s luck. This windfall was quickly blown on the throw-the-wobbly-darts-at-extra-tough-balloons game, but my mate won a bag of biscuits with his go. A good job, as there was no popcorn – and I don’t class stinky salted winkles or raw turnip as suitable alternatives.
The crowd of several hundred (a good chunk of the village populace) then sat down and waited expectantly. That was sitting on the earth of course, though the smart locals had brought rice bags for comfort. Luckily I was shown how to sit on my shoes, though I would still get a bit fidgety after the first 17 hours.
So to the film – and so disappointing. Far from an avant-guarde slice of young Khmer talent, or even just some easy Hollywood blockbuster, what we were offered was an episode of the intensely irritating slapstick ‘comedy’ which plagues my bus journeys to Phnom Penh. The funny man – a creepy little guy with a bushy Chapman / Hitler moustache and an grating high-pitched voice – makes Cambodians chortle and Westerners groan.
But I stuck it out, and it got better. The feature won’t win any Oscars, but it was an enjoyable romp, including charming prince, distressed damsel, evil sister, loud ‘mood music’, and a green-faced god arriving just in time to ensure a happy ending. Not to forget the fortune-telling rooster.
And then we all swarmed happily home through the streets of my village, like a football crowd returning from the ground. And it did feel a bit like coming back from a match: in the same way as you can enjoy a game even when your granny could play better - it’s the singing and chanting, the banter and the bovril – so I loved my evening amongst an excited crowd of giggling, whispering, cheering rice farmers. Such is the beauty of cinema, what sets it apart from telly or DVDs – it’s a shared experience. And one which is all the richer when enjoyed such an unlikely place as my little village in rural Cambodia. Flicks in the Sticks – happy, happy me.