J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Monday, May 01, 2017

LAAPFF ’17: Turn Left Turn Right

Life is messy in Phnom Penh, but there is a whole lot of it going on. This constitutes a welcome departure from a re-emerging Cambodian film industry that has been understandably focused on the genocide committed by the Communist Khmer Rouge. Unfortunately, a more workaday promise of death intrudes into the would-be free-spirited Kanitha’s life in Douglas Seok’s Turn Left Turn Right, which screens during the 2017 Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival.

Kanitha’s personal style is influenced by the groovy 1960s pop stars, like the ones we see go-go dancing in Angkor monuments in the opening scene. However, she is supposed to act much staider in today’s more socially reserved Cambodia. Her mother wants her to marry, but Kanitha is not down with that. Kanitha’s mother also wants her to start coming to terms with her father’s failing health. That will be difficult for the in-the-moment young woman, but it will be a lot likelier to happen than a wedding.

Although it is a smidge less than seventy minutes, Turn still manages to be impressionistic and intentionally collage-like. Inspired by concept albums, Seok divides the film into twelve tracks, but none of them would really stand apart as a film in themselves—except for maybe the wildly fun interludes of retro dancing ladies getting down.

Weirdly, Turn might have been more entertaining if it had been even less focused on narrative and just gone all in on the old school musical numbers. Nevertheless, Kanitha Tith gives a wonderful subtle yet expressive performance as Kanitha. It is also nice to see Dy Saveth, the Cambodian movie star who survived all her movies, perform an internet dance that Kanitha fixates on.

Cinematographer Steve Chen soaks up the awe of the ancient archaeological sites and coastal beaches. The vintage pop tunes also sound as fresh as cool spring water. However, the drama is relentlessly naturalistic and often somewhat listless. Still, it is just good to see Cambodian filmmakers starting to explore and take chances. Recommended for fans of Cambodian pop and introspective cinema, Turn Left Turn Right screens today (5/1) and next Tuesday (5/9) as part of this year’s LAAPFF.

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