Coming out in Cambodia

Fri, 29 April 2016

Film places ‘lady-boys’ at the fore

Filmmaker Sok Visal’s new feature flips the script on traditional portrayals of LGBT characters in Cambodian cinema. Not because of some rights agenda, he says, but just to tell a human – and entertaining – story.

When actress and entertainer Poppy – born Leang Sothea – found herself in rural Kampong Chhnang last October on the set of her latest film, Poppy Goes to Hollywood, the villagers already knew her as “Miss Poppy”.

She has arguably been the most recognisable transgender woman in the Kingdom since 2001, when she was crowned the winner of Cambodia’s first Thai-style “ladyboy” beauty contest.

This time around, she is not the only trans woman on screen. Among her co-stars are two other transgender women; two men who dress as women; and one man who must cross-dress for the sake of the film’s plot, which involves a gang of ladyboy performers on the run.

Poppy Goes to Hollywood is undoubtedly – and unusually – a movie with the “third gender” at its forefront. Set to premiere in Phnom Penh on Thursday, the film could be the first mainstream genderqueer-friendly feature produced in Cambodia, according to director Sok Visal.

“It’s been done before, but in a different way,” Visal said this week. “There were some other films that had transsexual or gay characters, but they were comic and they weren’t main characters. These characters are normal people.”

On this point, Poppy agreed. “Not that I look down on other productions, but I really admire the concept of this film,” she said. “It’s different from the others.”

Poppy Goes to Hollywood is only Sok Visal’s second feature film, and his first time directing one solo. His previous work – all in Khmer – includes the low-budget action-comedy Gems on the Run, shorts, music videos and commercials. He also runs the hip-hop music label KlapYaHandz.

Visal’s new movie isn’t a huge departure from Gems on the Run. It cost just short of $85,000 to make and is targeted at a young, Khmer audience. He said this one was meant to be “70 per cent entertainment, and maybe the rest education”.

“If they don’t enjoy it, they won’t tell their friends to see it,” he explained.

The director immediately decided to adapt the script after meeting the screenwriters, Michael Hodgson and Richard Johnson, in Phnom Penh. “I thought it was an important story to tell – the struggles of the LGBT community here,” he said. But he also liked that the script had a large dose of humour.

Poppy Goes to Hollywood revolves around Mony, a transphobic womaniser (Un Sothear) who falls into money trouble and turns to his estranged brother (Pee Mai) – a performer in a ladyboy club – for help.

After witnessing a murder outside the venue, he is forced to disguise himself as one of the dancers and call himself ‘Poppy’. The group (led by the real-life Poppy who plays ‘Sasa’ in the film) then head to Preah Vihear to hide out in ‘Hollywood’, the skeleton of a club run by a former dancer.

The tropes are plentiful: Mony’s struggles to cut it as a woman; city-dwellers out of their element in the provinces; a commune chief’s son with a rebellious streak. But the film is subversive in the elevation of its female leads.

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