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Where EAST meets the Northwest

EVERYTHING IS FOR SALE. Stealing Cambodia is set in a post-Khmer-Rouge Kampuchea where girls are one of the few viable commodities. (Photo courtesy of Apsara Films)

From The Asian Reporter, V16, #4 (January 24, 2006), page 9.

What money will buy, what money will not

Stealing Cambodia

A film based on Southeast Asia’s sex trade

Directed by Marlin Darrah

Produced by Marlin Darrah and Skye Fitzgerald

Apsara Films, 2003

Starring McGeorge Robinson, Linda Shing, Rob Stockton

By Polo

In our old and elegant corner of the world, Kampuchea’s (Cambodia’s) neighbors have always looked at the Khmer household with an uneasy mélange of admiration, joy, and dread. They are an ancient family. They’ve got fantastical ruins to prove it. They are a sweet folk, ask anyone. They laugh easy, they love a lot, they’ve had two heaping golden rice harvests a year as long as any elder auntie’s memory — a legacy of mighty Angkor philosopher-god-kings. Beneficent fathers, they were, to their adoring, easily pleased children.

A gentle folk in a generous land, sweet sun and kind rains. What could go wrong? Lots.

And lots did. Us edgier neighbors knew it could, we feared it would. Indeed, some of us had a hand in bringing it on. Oh dreamy, defenseless Kampuchea. Ampun’allah. God have Mercy.

It all went terribly wrong.

Then the dark Dark Years set in.

Today, 25 years later, Kamputs (Cambods) still struggle. Theirs is still an ugly house, but they are a stubborn folk. Stubborn and tender at the same time.

Now, Pol Pot and his dark princes are either dead or in flimsy disguise, but during their demonic reign they disappeared Kampuchea’s best. Poets and priests and professors, gone. Creative and civil society, simply vanished. All of it, and all of them, either in exile or in unmarked and shallow unsanctified graves.

Twenty-five years after the Khmer Rouge is also the setting of Stealing Cambodia, the first of a twin set of remarkable independent films reaching across the big Deep Blue from Oregon to Cambodia. The second, Bombhunters (Spinfilm, 2006), documents the irony of cold cash for the scrap iron encasing deadly unexploded ordnance buried just under Kampuchea’s exhausted soil. Bombhunters director Skye Fitzgerald produced the onsite Kampuchea part of Stealing Cambodia.

Stealing Cambodia is a feature length narrative film. It is, among other things, a drama about money and romance, and although there is nothing new about that, the hook of this film is staging it within the weightier sociological context of a deeply wounded national community. The Portland protagonists wander into Phnom Penh streets packed with folks doing their very best to get better, in a country left so far behind her neighbors that she now finds precious little to trade in our world’s rapidly globalizing economy.

What remains a viable commodity is girls. Teeny virgins net families and pimps even more. According to Stealing Cambodia’s director, Portlander Marlin Darrah, his film is based on stories told him by affluent Western and Japanese sex buyers and by Southeast Asian sex servers.

The movie’s exotic stage is filled with two white folks in love. There’s nothing novel about that either — Tarzan and Jane started the genre by brightening blackest Africa with their affair; Sigourney Weaver and Mel Gibson’s hot Indonesian nights only made The Year of Living Dangerously even more so; Indiana Jones did it in Arabia, India, and Old Shanghai.

Mercifully, in Stealing Cambodia the thrashings of those in love, of those who want to be in love, and those who ask: What’s love got to do with it? Are doing aaall that in service to the film’s more essential premise about love’s truth? Untouched. True love.

"Everything is for sale in Cambodia," laments Teedah (played by Linda Shing). "Even people." In 81 minutes of film time, several Asian girls’ bodies are sold, some white boys’ souls too. Love is lost and found, but never bought. And that is what lies at the heart of this film: a big-hearted people, hearts heroic, swollen to near bursting. Simply Kamput.

If only Love could ease Kampuchea’s suffering, if Love could only end her household’s crushing daily humiliation, in the way it evidently redeems the film’s Western guy and Eastern girl by the end of its story’s whole-hearted arc.