The 1960s and early 1970s were a golden age for Cambodia’s film and music, a brief crackle of coruscating culture wedged between the 1953 declaration of independence from France and the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime of 1975–79. Spearheading the film industry was the king, Norodom Sihanouk, who made more than 50 films. One of his bubbly stand-outs was 1969’s La Joie de Vivre.
The film stars Saksi Sbong as Princess Sulpha, the determinedly hedonistic (and adulterous) wife of Prince Chantavong. The prince owns an illegal gambling den disguised as an orchid shop; the princess is having an affair with her nephew. (By some miracle of preservation, you can watch the whole film here, with French subtitles.)
Sihanouk wanted his film to appear modern and daring, which meant two things: sex appeal and rock’n’roll. La Joie de Vivre included musical numbers from some of Cambodia’s popular musicians and singers (catch Pan Ron in the climactic shoot-out scene in a silver minidress), and the dance scenes abandoned the traditional social dances of romvong and saravann in favour of hip-swinging couple duets. Like the more formal style of Khmer classical dance, both romvong and saravann are characterised by graceful postures, decorous gestures of hands and wrists, and carefully placed steps. Neither the classical nor the social dances lend themselves to racy hip-swinging.
Cambodia’s independence brought about an era of liberalisation in the form of Westernisation for the urban bourgeoisie. Sampot skirts were swapped for the latest Parisian fashions; American music inspired the first generation of pop singers. La Joie de Vivre was filmed and produced at the height of this cultural shift, and it captures Cambodia’s wealthy middle class experimenting with their hybrid post-colonial culture, tragically wiped out before they’d had a chance to make it their own.
Early on in the film, Sulpha sneaks out to a restaurant to meet her lover. She’s the height of sophistication, with her foxy black bob, her scandalous red top and her printed flares. She and her toyboy nephew hit the dancefloor, watched enviously by the wife of the local governor.
The band, overcome with the music, writhe and bop like people possessed. Sulpha and her nephew immerse themselves in the rollicking tunes, but a lifetime of romvong has wrapped a rope around their wriggle. Firmly held carriages, still and heavy hips, an expressive energy concentrated in the upper body, in arms forbidden from embracing but capable of describing, in the air, a longed-for embrace: these traditional choreographies crumble like stones breaking off a building with every drum beat, leaving a strange new architecture in their wake.
The dancers are trying something new, something sexy, but its manifestation is stilted. Their bodies lurch and peck like roosters; Sbong, unused to complex or energetic footwork, makes up for her inexperience with enthusiasm and hops from foot to foot. It’s as if they are trying, with all their might, to loosen up.
Off to one side, some Cambodian youths have taken to the dance floor, and are swinging their arms in a semblance of grooving. The governor’s wife – long black hair, small black top – eventually accepts a request to dance, and in the moment before the dancing begins, she and her partner pause, stare at one another, and prepare to cast off the crutches of generations. The moment is like an intake of breath. Here we go! This is how fun goes! We’re about to have fun!
It’s a silly, funny scene, but it speaks – however inadvertently – to the heart of the film. Life’s joys are labour. Riches, freedom, beauty, youth: they’re a job, and you can either do them badly or well. Hedonism is hard work, and it takes practice to get it right. ●