Cambodia Thailand ,  2001
Directed by Fay Sam Ang.
One of the first films made in Cambodia since the Khmer Rouge, Snaker (the regrettable Hong Kong DVD version english title of the film, far less eloquent than the translated Cambodian title, The Snake King's Child) is a landmark in the cultural redevelopment of the country, and, it is hoped, the beginning of a revival of the film industry. A co-production with Thailand, it features both Cambodian and Thai actors together. The film was released in Thai theaters in March, but since there are no movie theaters in Cambodia, it's release has been limited to showings in parks, meeting halls, and the like. Still, many Cambodians have seen the film, since it is readily available on bootleg VCDs throughout the country.
The director, Fay Sam Ang, hoped to continue to produce films after this first one. However, since this film only barely covered costs through sales of rights to other asian countries, and bootlegging has pretty much put to an end any additional earnings, they may not be producing more films soon. Time will tell.
The Snake King's Child is another retelling of the classic Cambodian folktale, of which three prior versions, including The Snake Girl, have already been made. This time around, the plot (or what I could make of it in this unsubtitled production), concerns a peasant woman, Neang Ni (Om Portevy), and her abusive, jealous, drunken husband. He goes off to the market for long periods of time and does not return. On one of his trips, Neang Ni drops her hoe in the bushes, where a giant python is hiding. The python speaks to her, and allows her to reclaim her hoe, provided she become his wife. That night, the python enters her hut and transforms into a man wearing a terribly tacky glittery rayon disco outfit (Tep Rindaro). They make love, and when she wakes up, she is butt naked, in bed, next to a giant python. She is frightened for a moment, then thinks back about the guy in rayon and starts getting all hot again. Next thing you know she picks up the giant snake and starts cradling it, kissing it, and stroking it. Freudians, it is safe to come back into the room now.
Soon enough, she is pregnant with the Snake King's child. She hides it from her husband as long as possible, but soon it becomes impossible, and one day when she is out bathing, he clearly sees she is pregnant. Enraged, he forces her to eat some herbs to cause an abortion, but it fails. Then their daughter tells the husband that it is the python who impregnated her. He cuts off the python's head and dangles the corpse in front of his wife. Still, he has not done enough. He stabs her in the stomach to kill her and her child, but instead, dozens of little snakes pour out of the wound. He rushes after them, killing each one, but then, when trying to kill the last, runs into a stream, slips on a rock, and dies. The young daughter sees both her parents dead, rushes out onto the rocks, and sure enough, slips, hits her head, and dies, too. The little snake meanwhile transforms into a baby, which a wandering monk happens upon. Seeing the child's significance, he takes her up, names her Soriya, and raises her himself until she is a beautiful teenager (Pich Cham Bormey). Beautiful, that is, except for the living serpents she has for hair.
But the tragedy is only the first act, with the second, inevitably, a love story. A subtitle, the only one in English, proudly declares, "Over passed 10 years." And now, there is a love triangle between two young men and a beautiful, but spoiled, woman named Ranee. They constantly vie for her attention and affection. A fight between the two men ends with one of them falling off of a waterfall into the pool below. Thinking him dead, the other man and Ranee rush away, preparing a story to make up to their parents as to what happened. But of course, he is not dead, and Soriya fishes her out of the drink and brings her to the monk. Before he revives, the monk decides it's a good time to give Soriya a magic ring which makes her look human, with the admonition that, should she lose her virginity, she would become a snake forever.
When the young man, Wae-ha (Winai Kraibutra) awakes, he sees Soriya bathing and immediately falls in love. They stay together with the monk until he is fully recovered, then they return together to his estate to meet his old, lifelong friends. Renee is happy to see him, since she always liked Wae-ha better, but none to happy to see her. His friend, on the other hand, also becomes infatuated with the newcomer. At first Renee puts the moves on Wae-ha again, but with no results. They try to trick him into hating her, again without effect. At last, his buddy decides to rape her, but her magic ring comes off and one of her snakes bites him. The poisonous venom kills him instantly.
Wae-ha and Soriya leave the family estate then, and visit Angkor Wat. Not for any particular reason, as far as I can tell. But what the heck -- when you're filming in Cambodia, it seems a shame NOT to set a few scenes there. One of the world's most fantastic set backdrops, and you don't have to construct a thing. Anyway, under the watchful Buddhas of Angkor Thom they profess their undying love for one another and jump in the sack. Or, the grassy clearing, as the case may be. In the morning, Soriya notices scales growing all over her and runs back to the monk, begging for his help. But the nasty woman Renee and her grandmother, who apparently is a witch (go figure), show up, and the witch and the monk duel to the death. The Snake King's Child would not be true to the spirit of the original tale if it didn't have a happy ending, and so it does. After all, some good karma has to come from all that bloodshed at the beginning of the picture.
The Snake King's Child is for the most part a Cambodian picture, with Om Portevy (or Ampor Tevy, depending on how you Romanize the name), a popular Cambodian soap opera star, featured. But it also features Winai Kraibutra, a well-regarded Thai actor, who recently appeared in the internationally successful Thai film Nang Nak, which was also an old folktale brought to new life. (Fans of Winai will enjoy his gratuitous butt shot midway through the picture). The actor is a considerable draw, making the picture a success in Thailand, which at least has movie theaters. Another big draw for the film is its soundtrack, a compilation of modern Khmer-pop hits. The music was enjoyable to listen to, I thought, and did much to improve the overall quality of the production.
There is one special effect of note, and it's a remarkable one. The young Soriya's slithering hair was achieved by taping a dozen snakes to a wig which was fitted on the actresses head. The snakes all move independently of one another, and are just mesmerizing to watch. No digital effect could ever have conveyed how such a thing actually looks.
Try to find this film if you can, and see the rebirth of a national cinema. It may not be much to look at, but it is a new beginning.
Posted by Peter Nepstad on November 14, 2004.