The Cambodian film industry is largely defined by the rise and fall of the Khmer Rouge, the oppressive Communist regime that ruled the country from 1975 to 1979. The Khmer Rouge’s brutal authoritarian practices led to the disappearance of Cambodia’s budding film industry and many of the country’s early films. As authoritarian governments so often do, the Khmer Rouge’s reign also defined the next generation of Cambodian culture by playing a pivotal role in the lives of the artists.
Rithy Panh is amongst the most prominent names to emerge from the small Cambodian film industry. The Khmer Rouge regime exiled his family from Phnom Penh in 1975 and he ultimately lost his parents and sister in a brutal Cambodian labor camp. Panh has operated largely in the documentary genre, exploring the implications and fallout of this tragic era in Cambodian history and he even published a 2014 book about his experiences during the rule of the Khmer Rouge. He earned a producer credit on Angelina Jolie’s 2017 directorial effort First They Killed My Father which chronicled the suffering of one family torn apart by the Khmer Rouge. The film was shot in Cambodia using Cambodian actors and largely borrowed from Panh’s narrative style.
Rice People was Panh’s first narrative film, released in 1994. Adapted from the novel Ranjau Sepanjan Jalan by Shahnon Ahmad, Rice People follows a family of rice farmers through a single harvesting season during which they are plagued by misfortune. Panh forecasts his entire narrative in an early scene when the family’s matriarch Om (Peng Phan) is confronted by a snake. Her husband Poeuv (Mom Soth) kills it but they quickly surmise that the male snake was guarding its female companion and their eggs. Likewise, Poeuv strives to keep his wife and seven daughters safe and provided for, but when he meets his demise at the hands of an infection, the family must learn to cope without its patriarch. Om struggles to adapt, falling rapidly to delusions, alcoholism, and eccentric fits, leaving the eldest daughter Sakha (Chhim Naline) responsible for the harvest.
Much of the threats posed to the family originate in nature. Throughout Rice People new challenges arise frequently and largely take the form of potential danger posed toward the rice crop. Through these plot devices, Panh characterizes each of the family members and allows their characters to develop based on how they respond to these threats. As Om is pushed further and further by the deteriorating situation over the course of the wet season, she is weakened to the point of needing to be kept in a cage. Sakha on the other hand begrudgingly adapts to the situation, taking on the role as the head of her family and attempting to salvage the crop that her father started. The implication that this struggle is a cyclical, seasonal event is devastating in its own right. One can’t help but reflect on how much this family loses throughout the course of the film and wonder how any agrarian Cambodians survived decades of this harsh and unforgiving industry.
The French-educated Panh has a special eye for cinema and is an excellent storyteller. Though his time in Paris perhaps gives his films a more Western style than the Cambodian cinema of his 60s predecessors, Rice People is unmistakably Cambodian. It is deeply referential to Cambodian culture from medical and religious practices to the names given to different rice plants. Panh draws from his childhood when his father would take his family to the rural parts of the country to experience the agrarian lifestyle. Above all it is profoundly compelling and often deeply upsetting. Rice People was Cambodia’s first submission for consideration in the Oscars’ foreign language category and deservedly so. It is a defining film of the post-Khmer Rouge Cambodian film movement.
It is unfortunate that Cambodian film remains so forgotten. Many of Panh’s films can be sought out via streaming and DVD releases, but entirely homegrown Cambodian filmmakers have little-to-no presence on the international stage, even for those who seek them out. Classics of the country’s film industry remain unrescued and inaccessible to foreign audiences. Unsubtitled and grainy clips of early Cambodian films can be viewed online and reveal colorful, costume-laden works that would be much deserving of a proper restoration. Until then, much of early Cambodian film will remain a well kept secret from the rest of the world.