Like Mila Turajlic’s 2011 documentary Cinema Komunisto, Davy Chou’s Golden Slumbers is a wrenching requiem for a war-torn country’s once-thriving film industry.
Komunisto celebrates the jingoistic yet internationally heralded Yugoslavian films released during Josip Broz Tito’s dictatorship, from the late 1940s to 1980, while Slumbers is a look back at Cambodia’s short-lived but resonant cinematic heyday, from 1964 until the Khmer Rouge’s takeover in 1975.
The key difference is that Yugoslavia itself disintegrated along with its cinema, though most of its films were preserved; Cambodia, while ravaged, remained intact, but, except for a few sound recordings and still images, its movies were permanently destroyed.
That Slumbers emerges as the sadder of the two films is no small feat. Rarely has the act of remembering felt so powerful onscreen. For much of Slumbers, we watch a handful of key figures from this era — screen siren Dy Saveth, late director Yvon Hem — mourn the abrupt end of their careers and livelihood. Since they all discuss the past in long, stuttering takes, we are never clued in as to whether their stories will turn out to be unbearably tragic (Hem never knew where and when the Khmer slaughtered his relatives) or just plain devastating (director Ly You Sreang fled to Paris where, with zero resources, he ended up launching a taxi business).
Chou, the grandson of legendary producer Van Chann, more than compensates for the lack of film clips at his disposal. Slumbers‘ somber monologues are punctuated by lively reenactments of cinematic battle scenes, and haunting, lingering shots of fast food joints, industrial lots, and warehouses that were once prominent theaters.
Slumbers excels because it trusts the audience to imagine its own version of Phnom Penh’s golden age.