The Picture Worth 1,000 Words
by Isabella Berkeley
In answering the question “What is World Cinema,” one seldom thinks of horror. Frequently barred from international film festivals and seldom critically acclaimed, the horror genre presents an unique snapshot into a culture’s internalized values, deep fears and societal psyches. Particularly in Cambodia, where movies marketed internationally often represent a small part of the population (that of the rich and first world educated), horror films present arguably the most accurate portrayal of what it means to be authentically “Cambodian.” Almost exclusively produced, consumed and celebrated by Cambodia’s majority working class, the horror genre works to reinforce the villains, victims and virtues accepted within Cambodia’s larger cultural context, effectively defining a framework for Cambodian cinema and, ultimately, Cambodian identity in and of itself.
Based in Khmer folklore, Nieng Arp (2004)–or Lady Vampire– provides an archetypal mold for Cambodian horror (Chronister). Based in Khmer folklore, Nieng Arp centers around Maya; a young girl taken advantage of in life and doomed to live eternally as a bodiless vampire (or Ap) in death. As is typical of Ap mythology, Maya and her predecessor (from whom she inherits her curse) feed off trash and menstrual fluid, doomed to seek revenge from the men that wronged her for all time (Chronister). Stylistically, Nieng Arp follows the typical blueprint celebrated within the Cambodian horror canon, specifically that of low budget special effects, themes of folklore and revenge and depictions of women cursed as supernatural penance for their sins (Ebihara et al).
Ridden with genocide from 1975-1979, Cambodian Cinema suffered a large set back under the authoritarian regime of the Khmer Rouge (Ebihara et al.). While, up until this point, Cambodia had seen significant technological and thematic innovation, Pol Pot–the Khmer Rouge’s self named dictator–began to target the society’s elite and educated, ultimately making visual artists prime marks. In the most dramatic social upheaval in Cambodia’s history, Pol Pot forced residents out of cities, transforming the country into a completely agrarian, communist society in what became known as “year zero.” Those that fought back or gave reason to believe they had enjoyed privileges in their formerly capitalist society were systematically killed, beaten or tortured.
As a result, Cambodia’s demographics, as well as conceptions of “Cambodian” identity, changed a great deal in the post Khmer Rouge era, effectively shaping the stories put forth through Cambodia’s film industry (Ebihara et al.). Post-Khmer Rouge Cambodia saw women disproportionately outnumbering men, with some rural societies being over 70% female (Ebihara et al.). While Cambodian film had previously embodied a strong cultural perspective, reemerging cinema suffered from lasting effects of the Khmer Rouge’s artistic erasure. Many children were left without families and urban populations receded, as many reverted back to the agrarian life they’d been forced to have during the Khmer Rouge (Ebihara et al.). In other words, an entire generation was left to process their trauma alone, ultimately causing the entire country to question who they were amongst the rubble of their once strong cultural identity.
Without practiced directors, writers and actors, remaining Cambodian populations relied on self-taught cinematic techniques, creating an uptick in niche genres such as romantic comedy and horror, which needed little training (Ebihara et al.). These genres also frequently relied on historically accepted gender roles, racial stereotypes and other paradigms, rather than more “serious” genres, which had previously worked to subvert them (Ebihara et al.). Furthermore, though the Cambodian population and lifestyle changed a great deal, this was not reflected in Cambodian cinema (Cazenave). Though women in particular began to embody a more crucial role in Cambodian society, this was not reflected throughout Cambodian film, as the country began to fear a lack of retention of Cambodian tradition (Chronister). Folklore, Khmer history and oppressive gender roles, therefore, became pillars of Cambodian cinema in attempts to salvage the country’s cultural narrative, completely disregarding the current Cambodian landscape.
Using audio excerpts from Cambodian activist Catherine V. Harry, The Picture Worth 1,000 Words examines the ways in which Cambodia’s horror genre supports these deeply entrenched gender roles. Cambodia’s male population have continued to head most institutions despite being in the minority; a trend exemplified by the horror genre continually offering oppressive depictions of women (Ebihara et al.). As seen in Nieng Arp, women are typically painted as dependent on men until they transform into monsters as penance for their sins–normally that of forsaking their virginities. Furthermore, ingraining this trend of women as supernatural beings in the horror genre is, in effect, saying something about what remains a threat to Cambodian society. The Ap, as well as their devouring of menstrual fluid and trash, symbolically stands as a reminder that sexually liberated, independent women will be punished and that female organs stand as the epitome of gore. Cambodian society has, in effect, portrayed women’s newfound position in society as the thing it fears most, effectively demonstrating a hostility towards shifting sociopolitical trends and their effects on the Khmer tradition.
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