Director: Mr Fai Samang
Now this is a film I’ve been wanting to see for a while, the first Cambodian feature film for years (even if it is a co-production with a Thai company) and a premier example of the prolific snake-woman genre.
Nhi (Om Portevy aka Ampor Tevy, star of a popular TV soap) lives in the forest with her boorish, alcoholic husband Manop and their about-twelve-year-old daughter Ed. One day Nhi and Ed encounter a giant, talking snake in the forest while looking for bamboo shoots - they have lost their spade and the snake agrees to let them have it back if Nhi will love him and be his wife. Mohap is away in the city (where he sells jewellery) so that night the giant snake crawls into Nhi’s bed and transforms into a handsome man who makes love to her. Afterwards, Nhi is frequently seen by her daughter stroking the snake and talking lovingly to it.
I tell you, folks, this thing is a Freudian’s dream!
In the city we meet rich art dealer Wiphak and his wife Buppha, who is pregnant. When their friends Pokia and Mora discover this, Mora decides to become pregnant too and goes to a local witch for a potion which will make Pokia subservient to her, and therefore compliable.
Back in the forest, Mopak returns and notices Nhi’s bump, the result of her tryst with the Snake King (he’s not actually named as such, but one of the alternative English language titles of this film is The Snake King’s Daughter). Mopak accuses his wife of being unfaithful because they haven’t had sex for months, but she points out that no-one else lives within miles of them and claims that he was drunk at the time.
Ed tells her father about the snake but begs him not to hurt her mother. He follows his daughter to where the snake lives and cuts its head off. This is very clearly a genuine shot of a live snake being cut in two with a machete, and though it’s brief it’s a bit disturbing. He also makes Nhi eat the cooked snake meat. Then he takes her to the river, ostensibly to bathe, where he kills her for being unfaithful by slicing open her swollen belly. Out pours plenty of blood and a dozen or so small snakes which Manop kills (again for real). One tiny snake escapes and as Manop goes after it he slips on a rock and falls on his own sword. Ed finds her dead parents and also slips on a rock, cracks her head open and dies.
But a passing holy man finds the surviving snakelet and sees it transform into a baby as the sun rises. He takes the child home, naming it Soraya after the sun.
Scoot forward ten years or so and Soraya is a girl, rebellious but not disrespectful, living in a cave with her ‘grandfather’. But she is not any girl, for her head is a mass of writhing snakes!
This is one of the most interesting aspects of this film. Famously, when Hammer Films made The Gorgon in 1964, actress Barbara Shelley offered to play the title role wearing a headpiece with some live grass snakes attached (provided that the RSPCA were happy with the set-up). Unfortunately, the producers decided instead to depict the transmogrified version of Shelley’s character using a different actress (Prudence Hyman) with a headpiece that looked fine in stills but was obviously a bunch of rubber snakes when seen on screen.
Snakes are supposed to move. They writhe, they wriggle. And these ones do!
Because the makers of Snaker have used that very same technique: most of the snakes are actually still rubber but there are enough live ones attached to provide sufficient movement that it genuinely does look like a writhing mass of snakes on the actress’ head. It was astounding enough when Nhi lay down with the giant snake - a huge python (I think) which must have been twelve feet long if it was an inch. And it was disturbing enough when we had that real snake-beheading shot. But here we have live snakes not just stuck on somebody’s head but stuck on the head of a thirteen-year-old girl!
The actress who plays young Soraya, it must be said, is very good anyway (so was the girl playing Ed, to be fair) but for her to be able to act while live snakes hang in front of her face is surely worthy of some sort of award. (According to a piece about this film in the New York Times, young Soraya is played by Ms Danh Monica, although there is no name like that in the credits.)
Anyway, down at the river Soraya - with her head covered - meets three children of about her age (ten or eleven). These are Veha, son of the kindly Wiphak and Buppha (who died in childbirth), and Kiri and Reena, son and daughter of the snobbish Pokia and Mora. Veha and Reena are devoted to each other, according to their parents at least. Soraya asks to join their game of hide and seek, and though Veha is welcoming, Reena is rude and asks her brother to get rid of the new girl. He pulls the wrap from Soraya’s head - and the three children understandably run away screaming, while Soraya returns, tearfully to her grandfather.
A caption tells us it’s ten years later, so of course by now all four kids are young men and women. Returning to the river, kind-hearted Veha (Vinal Kraybotr: Nang Nak, Krai Thong, Kaew Kon Lek) gets into a fight with aggressive Kiri, who pushes him over a waterfall. Kiri and his sister head back to town and tell a distraught Wiphak that his son fell accidentally and, though they searched, there was no sign of him.
But of course, Veha isn’t dead - he is found and nursed back to health by Soraya, now played by Pich Chan Barmey (aka Pich Chanboramey). He’s handsome, she’s beautiful; his name means sky, hers means sun; they both have good hearts - so of course they start to fall for each other, especially as Grandfather has given Soraya a magic ring which transforms her snakes into beautiful long hair.
Veha and Soraya return to his overjoyed father, where Reena is understandably jealous of the new arrival because she and Veha have technically been engaged since they were children. Mora and Reena go to see the old witch who gives them some more of the bewitching potion that worked twenty years earlier on Pokia; they put it in Veha’s goblet at dinner but Soraya’s magic ring warns her and she knocks it from the table.
The witch works out that Soraya is a snake - not a reincarnation of a snake but the real thing - but that her magic powers will be lost if she loses her virginity. So Kiri sneaks into Wiphak’s house and tries to rape Soraya, but her hair turns back into snakes, one of which falls off and bites Kiri, killing him instantly.
There then follows one of the most unsubtle tourism product placements you are ever likely to see, although as Snaker was the first Cambodian feature film to receive international distribution for many years, it is perhaps allowable. Veha and Soraya spend several minutes wandering around the magnificent ruins of Ankor Wat, and Veha tells her that his love for her is as strong and everlasting as the temple walls.
Eventually, the two young lovers do sleep together, and while Veha sleeps, Soraya finds patches of snake skin on her arms. She runs back to her grandfather, but Mora and Reena appear with the old witch, who battles the holy man in a pretty cool magic fight, which leaves both of them dead. Mora and Reena run away but are bitten by a snake, as Kiri was. The Snake King reappears, along with the magically revived grandfather, and they use their combined power to make Soraya fully, permanently human - just as Veha appears to sweep her off her feet and carry her home.
What a great film! It’s got romance, action, intrigue, fantasy, and even a travelogue in the middle. It does have at least one snake deliberately and unpleasantly killed in the name of entertainment, which may be okay in Cambodia but is not a terribly bright idea for a potential export. But given how out of step with global popular culture the Cambodians were during - and in the wake of - the Khmer Rouge regime, again this is sort of allowable.
Pol Pot and his secret police outlawed all forms of popular entertainment including cinemas, so making a Cambodian film was a bit of a gamble as far as domestic distribution goes. It was apparently shown drive-in style at various outside venues. It must be said that, for a country with effectively no cinema industry, this is a fine-looking film. The cinematography is excellent (Mr Saray Chat is credited as cameraman) and the production values are well above the B-movie level that one might expect given the film’s origins. There is no actual special effects credit, but Mr Chhun Achom was responsible for the make-up, which may or may not include getting actresses to wear snakes on their heads!
Translating from the Thai alphabet into English is always a matter of debate and creates different spellings, so the actor credited on screen as ‘Mr Vinal Kraybotr’ is also listed on various websites as Vinai Kraybotr, Winai Kraibutr and Winai Kraibutra. And the writer/director’s name is spelled differently in each of his on-screen credits! The packaging calls the film Snaker although the on-screen English title is Snakers. The original title is generally given as something like Kuon Pus Keng Kang which everyone seems to agree means ‘The Snake King’s Child’ although apparently it was filmed as just Pus Keng Kang (or Pos Kairng Korng or whatever) which was the title used for the first of four Cambodian versions of this much-filmed story (the second was called Neang Lavear Haik and the third was Neang Preay Sork Pos). I have also found the film listed as Snaker: Ghost Wife 2 which is a translation of the Chinese title which markets the film as a fake sequel to Ghost Wife (ie. Nang Nak). Having seen this and Ngoo Keng Kong I definitely want to see more snake-woman films - this is my new mission!
This VCD is not a terribly good transfer, though it is widescreen. Perhaps it’s just my copy, but neither disc loaded straight off and both, when cleaned enough to load properly, jammed every 10-15 seconds for the first five minutes. In addition, the sound on disc 2 was way, way quieter than on disc 1. However, reviews of the DVD (also from Winson) say that the quality is not much better on that and there are no extras, so I can’t really complain. The subtitles are full of mistakes; I’m sure whoever did them speaks much better English than my Thai (or Cambodian or Chinese), but I can never understand why they don’t check with a native English speaker before putting the subs on the disc....
The disc also includes a trailer for the Jean-Claude Van Damme SF actioner Replicant (Van Damme fighting himself - blimey, there’s an idea that has only been done about eight times before).
MJS rating: A-