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FEATURE: Foreign ghost movies spook more than their Cambodian fans.

PHNOM PENH, Jan. 20 Kyodo

In country that has lived through Pol Pot's genocidal killing fields, civil war, political turmoil, military coups, violent demonstrations and riots, one might be forgiven for imagining horror films and ghost stories would find short shrift among Cambodian movie buffs.

One would also be wrong.

In the eight surviving movie theaters in Phnom Penh -- the capital boasted 33 theaters in the 1960s and the provinces another 50 -- usually two of every three new films screened monthly are horror or ghost stories.

And, according to Sem Sovandeth, owner of the Lux Cinema in Phnom Penh and president of the Movie Theaters Owners Association of Cambodia, such dependence on imported thrills and chills is the only course possible for theater owners who want to make economic ends meet.

At Lux, films designed to curdle the blood and chill the bones attract around 350 paying customers a day while less than half that number come for less horrific or locally made films.

''Teenagers like coming to the theater in pairs so they can get closer to each other when they are scared,'' Sem Sovandeth explained when asked why ghost and horror films from China, Thailand, Singapore, Hong Kong and the West's massive film industry dominate his monthly film line-ups. ''Between 60% and 70% of my customers are teenagers.''

Pov Sokha, 18, one of the fans at a recent ghost film, added, ''The ghost stories are produced for teenagers. When I watch them I feel horrified, and it makes me happy. Honestly, the ghost stories are often shown with sexy action that my girlfriend and I enjoy.''

And Sem Sovandeth said his cinema will continue to show horror movies until another genre proves equally profitable, despite calls from some parts of Cambodian society for less bloody and more uplifting offerings.

Chea Vanath, president of the Center for Social Development, criticized the importers and cinema owners for thinking of their self-interest and ignoring what she sees as ''bad effects'' from their choice of movies.

''Ghost movies are not educational nor are they beneficial to society, but are simply there to horrify, to give unrealistic dreams, and aspirations to Cambodians, especially the youth, by making them believe in superstition, gods, and spirits,'' she claimed.

Calling Cambodian society ''unhealthy,'' Chea Vanath admitted poverty is the main cause of many difficulties facing her country, including mental, spiritual and physical problems, but she also decried the fascination with horror and ghost films that ''only increase the hopelessness'' and cause people ''to believe even more in superstition, gods, spirits, alcohol and unrealistic dreams.''

''And this encourages them to watch ugly movies such as ghost stories with bloodshed and violence rather than ones that may better educate the younger generation,'' she said.

Som Sokun, director of the Cinema and Cultural Dissemination Department at the Ministry of Culture, has other worries.

He told Kyodo News that because moviegoers are so in the thrall of the horrific some less-than scrupulous film exhibitors are ''cheating the audience'' by painting their advertising hoardings with horrific and terrifying scenes, even when the films themselves often feature far much less frightening fare.

He would also like to see more Cambodian films on the capital's few remaining film screens.

But he admits that even less-than-thrilling imported films pose a challenge for local filmmakers who often spend far less on technology and special effects and whose stories often offer little attraction to most local movie buffs.

Still, filmmaker Korm Chanthy, director of Francaise Cambodia-International Production, believes the government should ban or reduce the inflow of foreign movies so the local movie industry has time to catch up.

''As long as foreign movies are coming into Cambodia, the local products will never be sustained nor developed,'' he said, adding that he believes many of the foreign films are imported without copyright and help ''spur piracy'' in Cambodia.

Som Sokun spoke wistfully of the days when Phnom Penh sported 33 movie houses and the provinces 50 more, Cambodian filmmakers made 60 to 70 films a year and those films were popular across Southeast Asia.

Today, he said, only about 10 films are produced annually, largely because of the eternal film-world paradox in which financial backers refuse to fund movies that are unlikely to prove popular and local films tend to be unpopular because they cannot attract enough outside money for the high-level production values local movie fans demand.

Unfortunately for the local film industry, resolving that paradox anytime soon appears about as likely as meeting a Chinese ghost anywhere in Phnom Penh outside the Lux Cinema or one of its seven competitors.
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Publication:Asian Economic News
Date:Jan 26, 2004
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