Watching Golden Slumbers at the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival

This was a blog post I did for the SDAFF website in 2012, but it disappeared during one of our many website migrations.

Long Beach’s Art Theatre is 12 miles from my childhood home in Cerritos, California. That makes the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival’s three days of screenings there my closest film festival outings from where I grew up.

Earlier this year, I saw Davy Chou’s excellent new documentary GOLDEN SLUMBERS at the Hong Kong International Film Festival, about as distant from Cerritos as is geographically possible. Seeing it yesterday in Long Beach, I was reminded of why film, which takes us around the world through images and stories, is nevertheless a powerful prism for thinking about home.

Director Davy Chou is a young Parisian of Cambodian ancestry. He’d always heard that he had a grandfather in the old Cambodian film industry, but only recently probed deeper, learning from his aunt that his grandfather was hitmaker Van Chann, who produced films in Cambodia during the 1960s and 70s. This led Chou to Cambodia, where he confronted the ghosts of the “Golden Age” of filmmaking, when 400 films were made in 15 years, but only a few of which have survived the devastating Khmer Rouge era.

Chou’s documentary revisits those years, lingering on images of old spaces (theaters-emptied-out, movie palaces-turned-karaoke bars) and sounds of an era (radio transmissions of film trailers, pop songs engraved on vinyl and digitized for YouTube). The era is evoked through memories of those who made the films, those who idolized the stars, and those who remembered fleeing war through cinema. It’s a film that is, by design, in need of “filling in.” In the absence of footage from the films of the period, Chou stages shadows of the Golden Age: film narratives are recalled through the fog of memory, special effects are evoked obliquely and jokingly, movie faces are remembered through newsprint and fading posters. Collectively, they form a fuzzy picture that we as 21st century filmgoers can fill in so that the Cambodian Golden Age can be resurrected and survive.

Everyone pictures those missing films differently. But I’m sure the images conjured by audience-goers in the Art Theatre auditorium not far away from the stretch of Long Beach called “Little Cambodia” were unlike most imagined by audiences in cities like Berlin, Sydney, or Santa Barbara, where the film had previously played. During the Khmer Rouge period of 1975-79, Long Beach became one of the world’s biggest destinations for Cambodian refugees. These were populations who brought Cambodian culture to the United States not through their possessions but through memories of everyday life, including of cinema.

The Q&A after the Long Beach screening of GOLDEN SLUMBERS was more than a filmmaker meet-and-greet, it was a conjuring of ghosts. Multiple audience members recalled seeing no-longer-extant films like The Snake King’s Wife. Some were in their teens or younger in the 1960s and 70s and had hazy memories of the period. But some had strong ties. One was, like Chou, a descendant of a Golden Age filmmaker featured in the film. In the most powerful moment of the discussion, one man walked down the long Art Theatre aisle to talk, in quivers as if he’d been waiting years to do so, about his friendship with Sun Bun Ly, one of the pioneers of Cambodian cinema.

But this was not simply a group recollection of the “homeland.” The Q&A was not only a séance for the glorious past, discoursing with figures who predated war and migration. It was about Long Beach itself. Some audience members remembered seeing some of the surviving films on VHS, pointing to Mary’s Video on Little Cambodia’s Anaheim Street. The younger generation of Cambodian Americans talked about the classics as integral parts of their upbringing as Americans in an immigrant society. And the man who made the trek down the aisle talked about Sun Bun Ly’s later life in the United States, where he had filmmaking plans that stretched beyond the Khmer Rouge and into the streets of Los Angeles County. Director Davy Chou’s role was less as a filmmaker being questioned and more a fellow young person possessing cultural memories that have traversed generations and continents. His film is also about Paris, and the story of a filmmaker who tried unsuccessfully to bring seven prints there in the 1970s, or the story of a Golden Age director whose sadness about the period is shaped by his sense of loss while living in Paris, where he later became a taxi driver.

And the period survives in Little Cambodia and its circles. During the post-screening discussion, Chou talked about a rare Golden Age print found in nearby Norwalk, just a stone’s throw away from my old house in Cerritos. During the screening and after, GOLDEN SLUMBERS awakened the past, but also the present in all of its cultural layers, thickened by stasis, confluence, and imagination. The film came alive for me in ways that it couldn’t when I saw it at a mall megaplex in Hong Kong. Seeing it in Long Beach made me rethink my own neighborhood, its own contours and its own specters. That we had all arrived there, across eight thousand miles during the most oppressive regimes of the 20th century, or over the 5000 miles to get to Long Beach from Paris, or even just the 12 I took to drive over from my parent’s house, and that we all came to see the digital beam deliver flickers of half-summoned stories is a testament to the will to remember and the majesty of the film experience.