Last week I had the opportunity to see Golden Slumbers, Davy Chou’s powerful documentary about the brief golden age of Cambodian popular cinema. As the film tells us, Cambodia produced nearly four hundred films between 1960 and 1975, many of them fanciful mythologicals brought to life by way of some primitive but nonetheless charming movie magic. Of course, such entertainments had no place within the medieval worldview of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, and, once that group seized power, the industry and its practitioners quickly fell victim to the murderous purges that followed. That very few of those aforementioned four hundred films survive today is no less heartbreaking for being unsurprising; it’s hard enough to contemplate the loss of national film history in the cases of countries like Thailand and the Philippines, but when that loss is symptomatic of the systematic annihilation of an entire society, it’s more than a matter of cinephiles crying in their beer over the pesky impermanence of celluloid.
That 1972’s Crocodile Man is among those few Khmer language films from the era that do survive today is likely due to its popularity beyond Cambodia’s borders. In addition to being a success at home, it was also distributed in Hong Kong and -- thanks at least in part to its basis in Thai folklore -- also saw release in neighboring Thailand. In fact, its source material was also used as the basis for the 1980 Thai film Kraithong, from Sompote Saengduenchai’s Chaiyo productions -- not to mention it’s 1985 sequel –- as well as another Thai film of the same name produced in 2001.
Crocodile Man was produced by the studio Sovann Kiry Pheap Yun, a partnership between Dy Saveth, who was at the time the most popular -- and hence most continuously employed -- actress in Cambodia, and her then-husband, Hui Keung, who was both an actor and director. Due to her high profile, Saveth takes top billing in the film in spite of her limited screen time, while Hui Keung, in addition to directing, takes on the more meaty role, I think, of Chalawan, the movie’s titular crocodile man. The film would be just one of roughly one hundred that Saveth would star in during the period, necessitating a schedule that often saw her shooting two or three films at a time.
One of a couple of ways in which Crocodile Man departs from Chaiyo’s later Thai language treatment of the tale is how it eschews the latter’s “hero’s journey” style narrative in favor of presenting its titular character as more of a tragic figure -- one who, at least at first, is cast into the villain’s role as a result of a sad misunderstanding. The other is how Hui Keung chooses to frame the story within the context of a traditional martial arts narrative. As such, our two central characters, Kraithong and Chalawan, are first presented to us as the star pupils of one of those wizened kung fu masters we are so used to seeing in Taiwanese and Hong Kong movies from the day. This master, we learn, is in possession of a magical tome which he has expressly forbidden his students to read, thus setting the stage for Chalawan, his curiosity getting the better of him, sneaking into the shrine and taking a peek anyway.
From the book, Chalawan learns how to transform himself into a very large crocodile, a feat which he is eager to demonstrate to his fellow students at the soonest opportunity. Unfortunately, when he does, the frightened students run off and leave him stuck in his crocodile form. By the time the master learns of his fate, it is too late for Chalawan to be helped, and so the master makes the best of an unhappy situation by using Chalawan as a means of conveyance, riding him up and down the Mekong on his various errands. One of these errands involves the fetching of curatives for Takao Kaew (Saveth), the sick daughter of a local nobleman, and it is on this occasion that Chalawan has a confrontation with one of the notoriously hostile crocodiles from nearby Snake Island. In order to avoid injury in the ensuing melee, the master insists that Chalawan swallow him, stressing that he must be regurgitated within three days lest he starve to death within the croc’s bowels. Unfortunately, the fight lasts seven days.
When the mute Chalawan returns to shore and coughs up the master’s undigested remains, his fellow pupils leap to a pretty understandable conclusion. Kraithong beats the animal mercilessly, driving him back out to sea, and then vows that, upon completing his training, he will seek vengeance of a far more permanent nature upon Chalawan. In a sequence teeming with Diver Dan caliber underwater effects, Chalawan is then taken to a magical undersea cave by an old sea hermit, wherein he is able to assume human form. After hooking him up with a pair of comely underwater brides, the hermit then proceeds to help Chalawan in honing his magical skills, until he becomes the most powerful creature in the sea -- with that last being an important stipulation. Meanwhile, Kraithong’s training at the hands of a new master has made him the most powerful fighter on land, with the corresponding stipulation that, for him to remain undefeated, he must avoid his opponents drawing him into the water. Of course, all of these finicky dictates get thrown out the window when Chalawan, in an act of vengeance, kidnaps the beautiful Takao Kaew and drags her back to his submarine kingdom.
I have to admit that my feelings about Crocodile Man are colored considerably by my having so recently viewed Chou’s documentary. After all, taken on its surface, the film is a fairly lighthearted fantasy with, at times, an admittedly ramshackle level of technical execution. The giant puppet used to represent Chalawan in his crocodile form is patently silly looking, especially in contrast to the film’s fitful use of stock footage of actual crocodiles, and many of the depicted feats of kung fu mastery are achieved by low rent camera tricks such as showing people jumping out of trees in reverse motion. Still, when one reflects upon the fact that, within a few years of the film’s making, many of those involved would either be murdered or in exile, the carefree feeling and exuberant sloppiness achieved by such effects gains a poignancy that’s almost too much to bear.
Dy Saveth and Hui Keung managed to flee Cambodia in the days leading up to the Khmer Rouge’s arrival in Phnom Penh, with Saveth eventually ending up in France and taking work as a nanny. She has since returned to Cambodia, where she now teaches at the Royal University of Phnom Penh. In Golden Slumbers, she talks about how she uses her collection of old stills and handbills as a means of remembering the friends and colleagues she lost. I imagine that Crocodile Man could also serve as such a means of remembrance -- which is quite a noble burden to bear for a film that I might otherwise describe as “fun” and, yes, perhaps even a bit dumb. But memory, loss and tragedy have a way of making powerful talismans out of even the slightest things. And if, somewhere in that process, Crocodile Man gained an almost exquisite bitter-sweetness that it was never intended to have, we are no less obligated to admire it as such.