Cambodia’s Creature Features
Part II: The Snake King’s ChildAfter the fall of the Khmer Rouge and when the Vietnamese-backed People’s Republic took control, cinemas were re-opened showing foreign films from Vietnam, the Soviet Union, Hindi films from India and action movies from Hong Kong. However the steady diet of pro-Soviet films focused on class struggles and socialist realism grew tiresome and Cambodian audiences demanded something with a more Cambodian flare.
Many sources wrongly state that The Snake King’s Child was the first feature film produced after the Khmer Rouge, whereas in actuality, Cambodian cinema actually resumed production of feature films in 1980 – 1 year after the end of the Khmer Regime and 21 years before TSKC’s release. The distinction of being the very first post-Regime Cambodian film belongs to My Mother is Arb (Kon Aeuy Madhi Ahp or Krasue Mom).
MMiA follows a young man who discovers that his mother is secretly an Arb/ Arp (a ghost with a woman’s head connected only to her viscera) and whilst pretending to her that he doesn’t know, living in the fear that his is in danger, his future is in jeopardy and that his mother’s secret may be discovered by others. MMiA was heavily based on Khmer folklore and after the attempted cultural erasure of the Khmer Regime, was very popular.
The Cambodian film industry continued to steadily grow until 1994 when VCR’s became readily available and very popular. The subsequent influx of international VHS tapes (mainly Thai soap operas) led to a government mandate that decreed that Cambodian films were just so incomparable to foreign films that film-makers should cease feature film production and focus on karaoke instead.
The led to a major lull in the industry despite the success of the docudrama Rice People (Neak sre) directed by Rithy Panh which premiered at the 1994 Cannes Film Festival and was submitted to the 67th Academy Awards for Best Foreign Language Film.
This brings us to 2001 which saw the release of Cambodian/ Thai co-production The Snake King’s Child (Kuon Puos Keng Kang), directed by Fai Sam Ang with a script co-written with Mao Samnang. Fai Sam Ang had long waited to produce ‘the first feature-length film for Cambodia’ (interpret that as you will) and decided upon retelling the myth of the Snake God due to its familiarity. Choosing a cast of Cambodia and Thai actors helped gain the production funding and in its completed form, TSKC clocks in at 108 minutes long. Whilst I can’t find any evidence to back up the ‘first feature length film’ claim, the cultural significance of TSKC is undeniable.The film opens with Nhi, a field-worker that is ignored by her abusive husband, losing her hoe whilst working. In her search she discovers the Snake King who offers to return her hoe in exchange for sex. Nhi agrees and later that night, the Snake King (in human form) beds Nhi resulting in her pregnancy. When Nhi’s husband Manop discovers his wife’s bestial infidelity, he beheads the python and in killing Nhi, slices open her womb unleashing thousands of baby snakes. Manop attempts to destroy the baby snakes but slips, falls and dies leaving one baby snake remaining.
The surviving snake transforms into a human infant and adopted by a wandering monk. Now named Soraya, the Snake King’s Child grows up healthy but is cursed to live with living serpents instead of hair. Once she reaches her teenage years, the monk gives her a magic ring that transforms the snakes into normal hair.
One day, whilst bathing at a waterfall Soraya meets Wae-ha, injured after losing a fight with a love rival. Soraya nurses his wounds and the pair fall in love so Wae-ha takes Soraya to meet his friends and family. However his mother takes an immediate dislike to Soraya and one of his friends attempts to sexually assault Soraya, resulting in his death by snake bite when he accidentally knocks off her magic ring and returns her hair to its snake form.To make matters worse, later when Soraya and Wae-ha spend the night together, they discover scales developing on her skin. Returning to the monk, they are informed that when Soraya loses her virginity she will be transformed into a snake forever. In the meantime, Wae-ha’s mother hires a witch to destroy Soraya but their plot is intercepted by the monk who sacrifices himself to kill the witch. Whilst attempting to flee the monk, Wae-ha’s mother is fatally bitten a lone baby snake.
Dying, the monk uses the last of his magic to remove Soraya’s serpentine transformation, allowing the two to get married and have a child.
Perhaps more infamous than any of the actual events in the film is the film-makers solution for creating the special effect of the Soraya’s snake-filled hair; due to a lack of budget for digital effects (most likely exhausted on the magic effects) a special cap was designed for the actress to wear which live snakes were then glued on to.Yes, the 17 year old actress Pich Chan Bormey for her debut film appearance had living snakes effectively glued to their heads. Fai Sam Ang told in an interview how the actress ‘cried and cried’ when she first saw the snakes but proceeded to shoot her scenes in a professional manner. Ang also claimed that the snakes would ‘give her little kisses on the cheek’ but I think the young actress might have a different opinion on what was happening.
Anyway the film was completed and ready to premiere in early 2001 however, still reeling from the ravages of war, there were no suitable cinemas left in Cambodia to premiere and screen the film at the time of release. Instead it was screened at the French Cultural Center and an outdoor screening was held in the courtyard of a television station in Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital and largest city. However in Thailand and Hong Kong, TSKC was widely distributed and marketed.Having suffered a major post-1994 decline in film production, TSKC was a huge success that re-invigorated the Cambodian film industry where more films than ever before are being production and released every year. Creature Feature Queen of the 70’s Dy Saveth even returned to star in the award-winning 2005 horror film The Crocodile, which follows a crocodile hunter hell-bent on revenge after crocs munch his wife and best friend.
There was even a sequel released in 2006 entitled The Snake King’s Grandchild (Chaos Puos Keng Kang) which continues the story of Wae-ha and Soriya. Also written and directed by Fai Sam Ang, the film won numerous awards at the Khmer Film Festival and contained the allegedly first nude scene in Khmer cinematic history courtesy of main actress Chorn Chan Leakhena.
With a budget equivalent to $100,000, TSKG is far more melodramatic and tells the tale of the Snake King’s Grandson, Mek, who falls in love with Chan, a millionaire’s daughter much to the chagrin of his jealous step-brother, Sok. In an almost cyclical fashion, the movie ends with Chan being married to Sok but pregnant by snake form Mek, when Sok finds out about her bestial infidelity and in killing her, slices open her womb unleashing thousands of baby snakes.
Sound familiar? The myth of the Snake King and his wives, children and grandchildren has been reinterpreted and reimagined for every new generation of cinema goers and influenced a new generation of film-makers.
Whilst the golden years of the Cambodian film industry may have been cut short by oppression, war and political turmoil, the future certainly looks bright.
The Snake King’s Wife and The Snake King’s Child may never win any grand prises or receive global acclaim but I believe that they should be widely recognised for their roles in Cambodia’s history. After all, once you get passed the fact that these films that ultimately begin with women copulating with talking snakes, you get a perfect cultural snapshot of how Cambodia has changed over the years through the medium of cinema.