Nearly four decades after its fall from power in Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge has remained a specter hovering over the Southeast Asian country. In The Torment of Ghost, the genocidal regime cuts a haunting presence — but only in a literal sense and as a trope with which director Huy Yaleng constructs what is in effect his take on the slasher flick. Revolving around a brutal businessman’s slow slide towards madness as he struggles with the seemingly supernatural fallout of his murder of a former Khmer Rouge cadre, the pic cruises along with a mix of sex, schmaltz, gore and comical gags.
Making its bow at Hong Kong’s Filmart after its release in Cambodia last month, Torment offers a somewhat bizarre and borderline-sensationalist take on that much-documented, blood-tarnished chapter of the Southeast Asian country. While domestic cinemagoers devoid of first-hand trauma of the Khmer Rouge years might welcome the film for its shock/schlock value, older viewers or international audiences might be hesitant to embrace the lurid aspects of it. Still, Torment provides a significant look into the thinking and workings of Cambodia’s burgeoning film industry today. Dancing Rains is handling sales at Filmart.
A collision of Cambodia’s gruesome history with the trappings of genre cinema.
The movie begins in 1978 with a couple fleeing from the Khmer Rouge. While the pregnant wife manages to escape, the husband is caught and carved open by a bloodthirsty soldier. The film takes a leap to 2018, and ruthless oligarch Sovann (played by director Yaleng himself) is shown ordering his thugs to conduct dirty business in his name, and then heads down to a cellar to threaten and torture someone who wronged him. Unscrupulous to the bone, he then sends his cousin-confidante Chet (ChheomSakada) to run an errand elsewhere, so that he could rape his wife.
One would certainly expect Sovann to be the Khmer Rouge soldier in the prologue or maybe one of his comrades or descendants, as that would make Torment an allegory about how social oppression has steadfastly remained in Cambodian society, with the villains trading in their military fatigues for civilian clothes. But Sovann actually turns out to be the son of the murdered man in that opening scene: His hatred against the Khmer Rouge would eventually drive him to kill a pensioner for being a former cadre.
Reeling from this act and also the suicide of Chet’s wife, Sovann becomes increasingly deranged, as he dreams repeatedly of being tortured by Khmer Rouge officers seeking to rid the land of “bad feudalists” like him. With this strange turn of events, the extremists somehow become just avengers, as they haunt corrupted individuals like Sovann for their bad deeds against the poor and powerless.
Then again, this might not be what Yaleng has in mind for Torment. The director’s previous two films — the serial killer thriller Vikalcharet (2016) and the 16th century-set horror movie The Witch (2018) — are markedly apolitical fare. This time round, the historical allusions might simply serve as a convenient source for scary moments in what is essentially a mainstream genre flick.
Falling in line with its counterparts in Hollywood and beyond, the pic features graphic violence and scenes which thrive on the flaunting of female flesh. A serviceable title aimed squarely at its young audiences at home, The Torment of Ghost is perhaps revealing of a marked differentiation within Cambodia cinema, with some young filmmakers ready to go down the commercial route and embrace the norms present in film industries elsewhere.
Production company: Meatochak Film
Cast: Huy Yaleng, Chheom Sakada, DoungManich, Hun Sophy
Director: Huy Yaleng
Screenwriters: Svay Leemeng, HuyYaleng, So Theavy, At Kunthy
Producer: Heng Ling
Executive producer: Choem Chamlakena, Huy Yaleng
Director of photography-editor: Nov Sovanaroth
Production designers: Keth Sovanny, Chea Samneang, Chea Samneang, Choun Chansonita, Choun Chandarady
Sales: Dancing Rains