Cambodia’s Creature Features
Part I: The Snake King’s Wife
Cambodia is a small country in Southeast Asia that borders Thailand, Vietnam and Laos. During the 50’s and 60’s, Cambodian film production and cinema was a booming industry with millions of patrons flooding to the big cities to watch the latest Cambodian hits.
One of the most financially successful and critically acclaimed movies of this period was the creature feature The Snake King’s Wife (Puos Keng Kang)). Produced in 1971 and based around the popular Cambodian myth of a Snake Goddess, TSKW was unlike anything that Cambodia had ever seen and the plot goes a little something like this:
A young villager has an affair with the Snake King (a shape shifting python) which results in her getting pregnant. When her husband finds out, he murders her which caused her to give birth to hundreds of baby snakes. The husband attempts to kill all the snakes but one escapes and is transformed into a human baby by a local hermit. The child, Veasna, grows up to be a very handsome man and falls in love with a wealthy man’s daughter, Soriya. Despite being turned back into a snake by a witch hired by the daughter’s stepmother (jealous as she is also madly in love with Vaesna), they get married and have a child, Cantra. Cursed by the witch to have snakes instead of hair (a gorgon, by Greek standards), Cantra seeks revenge on the witch when her father is turned to stone and her mother succumbs to psychosis. After burning the witch alive, all of the curses are lifted with Vaesna and Soriya returning to normal and Cantra’s snakes becoming long, beautiful hair.
The only copy I could find was incredibly low quality and was, at times, very difficult to watch. However, what really struck me was how much the technical skill reminded me of western films from the 1950’s. It was as if someone had taken a Black & White film from the 1950’s and simply reshot it in a different language. The direction is logical and professional, the camera work is smooth and precise; the music is beautiful; the acting is absolutely fine and the special effects are typically 50’s.
A film produced in Cambodia in 1971 was of the quality of a film produced in the USA in 1951, meaning that despite the vastly different economic standing and technological advances, Cambodian cinema was only twenty years behind.
TSKW was a huge box office success (especially in Thailand) and soon became one of the biggest hits in Southeast Asia at the time. It won 6 awards at the Asian Film Awards including Best Director for Tea Lim Koun and Best Actress for Dy Saveth. Both would return for the sequel in 1974 The Snake King’s Wife Part 2 (literally Puos Keng Kang 2) but it would not be the last of Miss Saveth’s involvement in Cambodia’s creature features.
Dy Saveth rose to fame in 1959 after winning Miss Cambodia when she was only 15 years old and would go on to feature in over 100 Cambodian films as an actress, writer and director. As well The Snake King’s Wife 1 & 2, she starred in other Cambodian creature features such as Snake Haired Girl (Neang Sak Pos), The Crocodile Man 1 (Kraithong Kropaer Charawan) & The Crocodile Man 2 (Chompa Toung).
Film Production in Cambodia was a fast-growing industry with the 60’s being referred to as the ‘Golden Age’ of Cambodian cinema. Indeed everything was going fantastically until 1975, when things turned sour…
In 1975, the Communist Party of Kampuchea rose to power in Cambodia under the leadership of Pol Pot. Although it only ruled until 1979, the Communist Party and its followers, the Khmer Rouge, were responsible for the deaths of between 1 and 3 million Cambodians in a series of massacres and genocides. Determined to revolutionise Cambodia from the ground up, the Khmer Rouge renamed the country, Democratic Kampuchea, and completely isolated the country from the outside world.
Their idea of a model Cambodia was to return the people to a more traditional lifestyle focused on agricultural labour by removing everything that they deemed modern. Schools were closed down, hospitals shut, banks and currency abolished, private property confiscated for the state and all religions were outlawed. At their most extreme, the Khmer Rouge executed Cambodians for picking fruit, wearing glasses, speaking English and engaging sexual intercourse with their spouse.
The Khmer Rouge also relocated millions of city dwellers and forced them to work on farms, the relocations and executions massively shrunk the Cambodian population and effectively destroyed the cinema industry. Film-makers and actors were categorised as ‘intellectuals’ and subsequently executed whilst movie-houses were shut down and all film reels were burnt. Very few films from this period have ever been successfully recovered.
Many Cambodian film-makers, including Dy Saveth and Tea Lim Koun, had fled to neighbouring countries such as Thailand and still enjoyed some success but Cambodia was left with no domestic film industry.
The Cambodian Genocides lasted from 1975 – 1979 when the Khmer Rouge finally fell from power and the country was taken over by Vietnam. Finally freed from the horrors of the Khmer Rouge, Cambodia began the painfully slow process of rebuilding the country and its culture.
The rebirth of Cambodian cinema was inevitable…
Still frames of The Snake King’s Wife are taken from Berlinale