Monday, August 13, 2012

Chompa Toung (Cambodia, 1974)

I’m beginning to think that the only thing verifiable about Chompa Toung is that it exists. Depending on which source you trust, it was either directed by Lim Buh Lun or by its star, Dy Saveth -- who, if so, likely also produced under the banner of Sovann Kiry, the production company she founded with her director husband Hui Keung. It’s also based on either a traditional Cambodian fairy tale and/or a poem by nineteenth century monarch/writer hyphenate King Ang Duong.

It also appears that Chompa Toung was intended as a sequel, at least in spirit, to 1972’s pan Asian hit Crocodile Man. That is not to say that there’s any explicit connection to Crocodile Man’s characters or story, however, at least as far as I can ascertain. There is a crocodile, to be sure, and maybe even a brief sequence recapping the earlier film’s events, though of that last I can’t be entirely certain. There were no subtitles, you see. Thus I come to you equipped to write, not a review, but at best only a cautionary tale.

Not that you, being a sensible person free of significant head injury, need to be warned off of watching an untranslated Khmer language feature dependant almost exclusively upon dialog to move its plot forward. And this is without mentioning that the version of Chompa Toung currently available on YouTube is of the washed-out and heavily pocked variety that makes a surviving film feel more lost than found. Furthermore, the film’s tirelessly insistent musical score, which seems to shift randomly from traditional Cambodian folk sounds to funk to pop without pause, has the potential to be a little alienating (especially without the distraction of actually understanding what people are saying to take your mind off it), as does the fact that so much of the movie is padded with nature footage that was clearly shot off of a TV screen.

This is not to say, however, that Chompa Toung lacks completely the naïve movie magic that leant Crocodile Man so much of its charm. For instance, the film includes a cloud dwelling deity who intervenes in human affairs by way of hand projected auras that are scratched directly onto the film, and the goofy looking crocodile puppet from the first film makes a welcome, if brief, return. I also think that a kitten was turned into a human woman at some point. But aside from that, a lot of what you’re going to see is lengthy scenes of conversations shot on tiny, albeit colorful, sets. The fairy tale aspect of the story, which requires the involvement of various and sundry princes, princesses and kings, further guarantees that an inordinate number of those conversations will involve commoners kneeling in supplication before their betters. So there’s that, if that’s your thing.

What I can understand of the story, based in part on the description of the original folk tale linked above, is that it involves the titular Chompa Toung, a beautiful young princess played by the beautiful young Dy Saveth. At the film’s outset we see Chompa cavorting on the beach with some of her friends/subjects/retainers, and learn that, when she laughs, she vomits flower petals, which, as you might imagine, looks pretty weird. One of her companions gives her a crocodile egg, which we later see has hatched and issued forth what will become a grown crocodile, which Chompa keeps in a pool within the palace walls. For some reason, one of her servants one day sees fit to free the crocodile, bringing unhappy results for many of the water loving common folk from the surrounding area and their extremities.

Someone has to pay for this massacre, it seems, and it turns out that someone is Chompa, who, in the company of her kitten/nurse, is set adrift on a raft and banished from the kingdom. From here things seem to diverge from the original tale a bit. It appears that the two women are captured by an ogre in the service of some kind of demon king (perhaps, in fact, the crocodile given human form?), and Chompa is subsequently rescued by a handsome prince played by Khmer superstar Kong Som Eun. Then some kind of super baby is issued as a result of their (apparent/off-screen) union, which someone tries to bury in a box. Your guess is as good as mine, really. All I know is that all this required a lot of kneeling, beseeching and supplicating on behalf of a lot of people, and a lot of considered chin stroking on the part of the royals charged with assessing the rhetorical weight of said groveling.

I clearly need to have movies like Chompa Toung come along and baffle me from time to time. It cures me of any hubris I might have stemming from my familiarity with genre, and the idea that that could somehow provide a Rosetta Stone for understanding films regardless of their linguistic inscrutability. I mean, sure, the language of cinema is universal, but it turns out that language language is still pretty important. Just ask someone who can understand Chompa Toung, to whom its survival might very well be kind of a big deal. The fact that it has the power to pimp slap me into humility is also of value, of course, but it’s not the only reason I’m glad it exists.

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