Review: Cambodian Son (Sugano, 2014) – CAAMFest San Jose 2014

Still from the movie Cambodian Son

Cambodian Son tells the story of Khmer Exiled American (KEA) poet Kosal Khiev, who was born in a refugee camp, moved to the U.S. at the age of one, was arrested at age 16 for attempted murder, and forcibly deported to Cambodia after serving 14 years in prison.

By the time the film catches up with Khiev, it has already been over a year since his exile to Cambodia, a country he has never even visited and in which, when he finally comes, he knows no one. He lives at a guesthouse and seems to be unemployed. Nevertheless, through the miracle of modern information technology, someone in London has come upon his body of poetry performances and has invited him to represent Cambodia in the Cultural Olympiad that is to accompany the 2012 London Olympic Games. Through Kosal, the documentary also touches broadly on American culpability in the Cambodian civil war, the community of KEAs living in Cambodia, and the concept of rehabilitating criminals through art or artistic expression. It was in prison when Kosal first became introduced to spoken word, and prison is the inspiration for much of his work.

Khiev’s story is not an altogether unfamiliar one. Our country is full of immigrants who come to the U.S. at a young age, who discover that the street is the only place where they can find community, who make mistakes as youth, and who end up getting deported and permanently separated from their families. But it is the first time I’ve seen the story of one particular exile, and on such a momentous occasion in his life.

In comparing this film to Stories from Tohoku, the other documentary I watched at CAAMFest San Jose this year, I won’t hesitate to say that Cambodian Son is the more ambitious, indeed, the better movie. The subject matter, for one, is grander, the editing and visualization more polished and engaging. At the same time, in thinking back on the piece, I can’t help but feel a little dissatisfied. I wish the film could have given us a more nuanced and complicated representation of the man and artist. I could have done with less footage of his performances and more exploration of his feelings of guilt (if any), of his relationships with the other KEAs, of his personal failings. The film provides a tantalizing glimpse of some of these elements–in one scene we see a former friend complaining of Khiev’s abandonment of the schoolchildren in Cambodia he was mentoring–but the threads end abruptly. In the end, the viewer comes away with a vague feeling that filmmaker Masahiro Sugano is trying more to protect his subject than to provide an unfettered view. We never get to see the real Kosal Khiev, just the image he projects on stage.

The most emotionally engaging part of the film is the exploration of Kosal’s relationship with his family, culminating in an unexpected revelation at the documentary’s end. If only more had been done with this potential, the movie could have been a much richer, much more mature piece. As it stands, however, it’s still a unique, contemporary, and personal look into a legacy of war. Worth watching, if you can.