S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine (2003) / S-21, la machine de mort Khmère rouge

Country: Cambodia
Language: Khmer/Vietnamese
Theme: War
Runtime: 101 minutes
Director: Rithy Panh
Starring: Chum Mey, Vann Nath

Ratings: IMDb.com: 7.1/10

Film Festivals:
2003 Cannes Film Festival
2003 Toronto International Film Festival
2003 New York Film Festival
2003 Vancouver International Film Festival
2003 Chicago International Film Festival
2004 Hong Kong International Film Festival

Awards:
2003 Cannes Film Festival: Prix François Chalais
2003 Chicago International Film Festival: Best Documentary
2003 Copenhagen International Film Festival: Jury Special Prize
2003 European Film Awards: Best Documentary
2003 Leipzig DOK Festival: FIPRESCI Prize, Golden Dove
2004 Buenos Aires International Festival of Independent Cinema: Human Rights Award
2004 Hong Kong International Film Festival: Humanitarian Award

Nominations:
2003 Copenhagen International Film Festival: Golden Swan

A comparison between S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine (2003) by Rithy Panh and Waltz with Bashir (2008) by Ari Folman seems pertinent here. Both films deal with wartime atrocities and massacre, with the former on the Khmer Rouge massacre in Phnom Penh, Cambodia of the 1970s, and the latter on the Palestine slaughter in Israel in the 1980s. Both films involve directors who were involved in, and who survived their respective ordeals. Yet both films cannot be more different in terms of their stylistic treatment and aesthetics.

Waltz with Bashir is a highly stylistic animation film full of lush colors, crisp lines and catchy music that draws attention right from the start, before presenting the reality with strong impact by a cutaway to actual news footage showing the grieving citizens of the time. S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine, however, is a very down-to-earth documentary that casts a spotlight into the Khmer Rouge regime that occurred in remote Kampuchea of the 1970s, a historical incident that is slowly fading into the international shadows of obscurity with the passing of time and tide. With little media attention and Cambodia being pretty much off the radar on the international scale, this is not surprising despite the Khmer Rouge regime being one of the bloodiest massacres of the 20th century that has left at least a quarter of Cambodians dead.

Waltz with Bashir creates impact largely through playing with contrast, but the straightforward approach taken by S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine is in my opinion equally, if not, downright more chilling. Rithy Panh survived the regime, and the director, who presently resides in Paris (France appears to be the ideal country for these war-stricken directors to seek asylum), returns to his hometown to seek answers in a straightforward interview face-off that brought together two of only around a dozen survivors of the S21 prison against their captors. This is what makes the film so intense, the survivors confronting their captors who once engaged in incomprehensible evil and trying to seek answers out of them.

The difference is stark. Age has caught up with these alleged wartime criminals who are, today, old and into their golden years. Vanh Nath’s saving grace was his artistic talent and his ability to paint realistic portraits of the war generals, and today he looks jaded with his head full of white hair. The other survivor, Chum Mey, broke down at the mere sight of the building, restored as the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum today, and could not bear to face the violent history and the ghosts of his past (“We suffered so much. Don’t think about it. My wife, my children… I’ve lost everything” (12:46)). And it takes a lot to watch a grown man break down. Meanwhile, their former captors back then are all middle-aged today, being barely teenagers when they were recruited into the regime.

In a tour around the museum, the previous captors chillingly recounted scenarios of their routines in the past. They unflinchly re-enact scenes where they beat prisoners, give them food, deprive them of food, and send them for execution. They complain over having to clean up after these prisoners, how they stank and how the trucks that shipped them to the execution grounds usually end up reeking of poo and urine. Worst, they appear unrepentant, brainwashed by the regime of the past that sought to create a Communist agrarian utopia into thinking that this was for the best. They do not stop to consider the implications of their past actions, and when the angered Vanh Nath—veins literally popping out of his neck as he struggles to control his emotions—confront them on what they make of their past deeds, they shy away from owning up to them by saying that there wasn’t any choice. But one can’t help but feel that it runs deeper than that, their bonechilling re-enactments suggestive of the fact that such torture and torment have been inbred into the recesses of their dehumanized soul, and that they still think that it is legitimate and even normal. (“When the Party makes an arrest, it arrests an enemy of the Party. Even husbands, wifves, children. The Party, S21, never made arrests by mistake” (29:43)), with one showing apparent remorse (“I was arrogant, I had power over the enemy. I saw him as an animal. I didn’t think. My heart never checked my brain, never stopped my hands and feet from striking” (37:41) / “Today when I think about it, it was against the law” (1:29:44)) as the camera pans away from the interrogator and casts a harsh light upon the captor.

The camera switches between medium shots that capture the vastness of the larger rooms, with the prisoner numbering of the wall bearing an indication of how packed these rooms once were despite its size, and the close-ups of the smaller cells where prisoners deemed to be trouble were sent to “repent”, by which a sense of claustrophobia was evoked. Adding to that are the numerous scenes that are framed from outside the prison grilles (51:26). The camera zooms in on the detailed records of the prison, including photographs to jolt memories. Interviews are honest: “They were putting a rope around our necks and pulling us along, like cattle. We cannot hear anyone except our own footsteps. They’d kick anyone who fell. And we obeyed, they laughed. Just like blind men!” (08:46)

This film has won numerous international humanitarian prizes, and was the catalyst leading up to a confession about the Cambodian Civil War after years of public denial. A slight pity, though, that the short black & white grainy news footage shown at the beginning of the film (00:54) was in sufficient to create the context required to fully appreciate or understand the film, which cuts straight to the chase. But one takeaway from the film is without doubt the similarities of the incident with the Fascist propaganda of the Nazis that led to the Holocaust. A single influential person could possess enough power to yield control of the minds of key individuals in a population that could lead to a massacre against dissidents. And one might perhaps even draw parallels to the ongoing Kim Jong Il regime in North Korea, or even among the militant Islam extremist terrorists plaguing the world.

Empire of Passion (1978) 愛の亡霊

Country: Japan
Director: Nagisa Oshima
Language: Japanese
Runtime: 104 minutes
Starring: Kazuko Yoshiyuki, Tatsuya Fuji, Takahiro Tamura, Takuzo Kawatani, Akiko Koyama
Theme: Romance/Erotica, Crime

Ratings:
IMDb.com: 6.9/10

Film Festivals:
1978 Cannes Film Festival

Awards:
1978 Cannes Film Festival: Best Director
1979 Japanese Academy Awards: Best Music Score

Nominated:
1978 Cannes Film Festival Palme d’Or
1979 Japanese Academy Awards: Best Actress, Best Cinematography, Best Director, Best Film, Best Lighting, Best Sound, Best Supporting Actress

The Empire of Passion (1978) is Japan’s official submission to the 51st Academy Awards for the Best Foreign Language Film award, although it missed out on a nomination in the end. Yet the controversial director did pickup the Best Director gong at Cannes for this film. It is definitely noteworthy this is Oshima’s follow-up film to In the Realm of the Senses (1976), the film that directly taunts the censorship board with full-frontal explicit nudity, unsimulated sexual sequences and several unflinching bone chilling scenes that involve the shoving of a hard-boiled egg up a woman’s vagina and the severance of a man’s penis in its full glory. Comparatively, Empire of Passion is a much milder offering, though the international attention that In the Realm of the Senses received would definitely have helped thrust—no pun intended—The Empire of Passion into international spotlight. It is noteworthy that Director Oshima opts to keep faith with the male lead from In the Realm of the Senses, Tatsuya Fuji, who plays the protagonist in this film as well. There is this innate physical quality to Fuji’s look that makes his portrayal of the attractive, horny, philandering male so alluring and convincing – he turned in a decent performance as the master who falls in love with his servant in In the Realm of the Senses, and was equally convincing here as the young man who falls for – and rapes — a much older woman in this film.

The Empire of Passion is also Oshima’s only foray into “horror” in his prolific filmography, with the supernatural elements involved that yields an arresting mix that involve eroticism as well. The ghastly appearances of the deceased husband create several spooky moments that can rival those in a full-fledged horror movie that Japan would become famous for several decades later. Seki (Kazuko Yoshiyuki) is a 41-year-old working-class mother who falls in love with the 26-year-old Toyoji (Fuji), and they begin an affair surreptitiously behind the back of her rickshaw-puller husband Gisaburo (Takahiro Tamura) away from the watchful eyes of the close-knit village. Their initial exchanges were that of open flirting, and when Gisaburo at one point of time questioned whether Toyoji might have taken a fancy for Seki, became more discreet. One day, Toyoji forced himself on Seki in a rape sequence that ended in Seki relishing the process and desiring for more, as opposed to the conventional norms of hysteria that rape victims typically end up in. That marked the turning point as they grew closer and closer in an infidelity that sees them having coitus much more often and eventually indulging in erotic behavior. Toyoji “shaves” Seki clean, and they hatch a plot to murder Gisaburo when it becomes apparent that he would probably notice something amiss. Gisaburo’s body was dumped into an old, unused well and the couple goes on their adulterous ways after his death, not expecting that rumors surrounding his sudden disappearance would resurface three years later. Apparently Seki’s story that he had gone to work in Tokyo was flawed, and no one in the village was buying it.

The Empire of Passion explores themes like guilt, passion and dishonesty, especially that of how passion can easily convince people into unthinkingly performing immoral acts. Oshima’s unrelenting close-ups and style leads me on a guilt trip where I actually empathize with the adulterous couple, rather than cast a judgmental eye on them. They want each other so badly, but unfortunately fall prey to societal norms and pressures. The director’s mastery of skill becomes apparent from the way he deals with stereotypes and conventions that prevail in such a movie. In fact, the climax is pretty much expected, though he deals with clichés in an alternative manner that sees the introduction of supernatural beings in a context that does not seem ludicrous. In fact, the “ghosts” may not even have been real as per an archetypical horror movie, but rather the “ghosts of Seki’s past” manifesting as she allows the rumors that are flooding around the village and her immense guilt in her hand at murdering her husband to take reign over her psychological senses. We notice how the pair struggle to come up with cover-up stories the more they lose their head, to which Seki’s chaste and non-manipulative nature shines through from her unwillingness to lie and her inflexibility to deal with the murder in the moments after it happened. Toyoji himself is not as headstrong as he seems, and the guilt he suffers manifests in a bizarre habit that sees him returning to the well the infidel couple disposed the body off in to throw in dead leaves, handful by handful.

This is a humble tale by Japanese folklore standards, and a far cry from the big-budgeted Godzilla films that have thrust Japanese cinema into global spotlight by that point of time. Oshima delivers, through stunning luscious shots, a breathtaking tale of sex, lust and passion. It is hard not to draw Freudian references to the film. Eros and Thanatos are prevalent in the movie as love and death take centerstage. Further, there exists a compelling Oedipal desire between the 26-year-old Toyoji and the 41-year-old Seki – the 15-year-old age gap making Seki scientifically old enough to be Toyoji’s mother. We see this manifesting in a scene where Toyoji chides Seki for breast-feeding her baby son and wondering when he will ever get his turn. In a reversal of conventions from the typical femme fatale that sees a female villain turning on sexual desires in the male, we see a male disrupting the nature of the family and society in The Empire of Passion.

The love surrounding the couple is bittersweet – beginning with a romance that would not be incongruous in a Shakespearean play and culminating in a psychological drama full of remorse, guilt, anguish and fear as the spirit of the wronged bites back.