In the Life of Music

Every so often, a film manages to sneak its way in and surprise the hell out of you. In the Life of Music is one of those films.

Armed with an unapologetic storyline, a cast that pulls its own weight, and a directorial team that is so talented you can only wonder why the world isn’t yet raving about them, In the Life of Music is unforgettably good. There just isn’t much you can say in critique of this startling indie masterpiece.

What you can comment on, however, are that the reasons why you probably wouldn’t watch this film – namely, the foreign language factor and focus on obscure music – are exactly the reasons why you should.

Set in Cambodia, In the Life of Music follows the journey of Hope, a young American girl visiting her relatives in Cambodia for the first time. The first few minutes leaves an impression of doubt that have you initially questioning the obvious; will this be yet another subpar privileged-Western-girl-meets-third-world-country plot?

By the time the movie setting smoothly leaps back in time to a stunning 1968 Cambodia, you know the answer is a resounding no. Hope, played by Ellen Wong, wins you over from her first encounter with extreme third-world poverty. She makes you weep when you realize why she records everything around her with a video camera; for her Cambodian-born dying mom. Flawless in her ability to succinctly switch from light-hearted to emotionally wounded in the blink of an eye, Wong is the actress to watch. She masters the art of delivering touching, poignant moments that capture your very soul.

the lives of a boy and girl, later an expectant mother and father, and finally, their grown-up child, woven together by blood and by a song, Champa Battabang.”

Thanks to well-executed transitions from Cambodia in 1968, to a war-torn Democratic Kampuchea, formerly known as Cambodia in 1976, and finally Cambodia 2007, this film depicts three chapters over the course of 30 years, telling the story of a family that survives impossible odds. In the Life of Music narrates the lives of a boy and girl, later an expectant mother and father, and finally, their grown-up child, woven together by blood and by a song, Champa Battabang.

What begins as a tale of a Westerner abroad evolves into a harsh, but tremendous narrative echoing the reality of Cambodia’s scarred past.

“Have you ever thought: dying as a human being is better than living like an animal?”

The first chapter of the film takes us back to 1968, centering on Hope’s parents Chy and Phally, as they first meet, fall in love, and ultimately fight for survival during the Khmer Rouge Regime takeover of Cambodia – or as it was known then, Democratic Kampuchea.

Sryean Chea (Phally) and Vandarith Phem (Chy) give gripping performances in their roles as expectant parents, as In the Life of Music fast forwards to the second chapter of the narrative;  where we witness Phally and Chy living as human slaves in 1976 Democratic Kampuchea. The two enthrall the viewer with their devotion to one another, revealed in few, precious shared moments amidst the turmoil. Chea as Phally especially commands your attention, as she epitomizes the resilience of a woman broken by circumstance, who will not give up in her fight for her unborn child.  

Another rare gem embedded within In the Life of Music is the versatility of the entire cast. From Hope’s Uncle Vanny, (Sovuthy Ker) to her aunt Bo (Kimkhorn Kuch), everyone shines. Even smaller characters, notably “Little Comrade,” (Ratanak Ben); a boy soldier in the Khmer Rouge Regime tasked with killing a man who is nothing but kind to him, manage to leave a lasting impression.

“…production that breaks you apart, just to put you back together again…”

All else aside, the real diamond of this movie is its political testament. Directors Caylee So and Sok Visal bring the cruel realities of Cambodian 1970’s genocide (that resulted in the death of 3 million people) to life. Using bleak landscapes, haunting scenes of calculated killings, and close-up shots of actors that reverberate with a loss of spirit, So and Visal plunge you smack dab into the middle of Cambodia’s dark past in a way that makes you hurt, think and protest all at once.

It is hard to watch, but all the more compelling because of it. The barebones of In the Life of Music is historically real, and it is one that the directors want you to remember.

There are a few plot holes. You never find out exactly what happens to some key characters in the narrative, which in most cases, would annoy the viewer. Strangely enough, you forgive So and Visal for them, and consider the possibility that the missing resolutions were put there on purpose.

Could it be that the intention was never to award us the luxury of knowing how characters we care about meet their end? This argument makes a lot of sense for a tale about genocide, as countless Cambodian families were refused the peace that knowledge brings.

In the Life of Music is the type of production that breaks you apart, just to put you back together again. It will rattle you to the core, and gift you with a better grasp on what it means to cling to life in the face of enormous suffering. In the Life of Music is chilling, heartbreaking, and stands out in its ability to strike a chord with any audience.

In the Life of Music (2018) Directed by Caylee So and Sok Visal. Written by Caylee So and Dane Styler. Starring Ellen Wong, Sovuthy Ker, Kimkhorn Kuch, Sreynan Chea, Vannarith Phem, Picherith Morm, Ratanak Ben. In the Life of Music screened as part of the 2018 Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival.

5 out of 5 stars

3 responses to “In the Life of Music

  1. Compelling review, TU! It’s definitely a film that captures the broken cultural identity of a traumatized, multi-generational, & millennial diaspora that seeks 2reconnect w/our roots & history in country we barely know. U remarking the nuanced, wounded performances & noting the significance n impact of Cambodia’s most revered song, one that has been the inter-generational, musical landscape 2decades of lives, is the crust of healing n hope we have 4the future, along w/the innocence, sadness, n nostalgia we view the past.

    Ur only singular critique seems 2b the plot hole 2the unanswered question, “what happened?” Unfortunately, that’s one question millions of Cambodians will never be able 2answer. Perhaps bc we’ve all experienced it thru the loss that tragically weaves us together, every Khmer person knows that in most instances, we will never have closure on the final moments of death 4our loved ones. Besides the obvious death by starvation or disease, millions of Cambodians simply disappeared, only 2face their greatest fear. Whether by knife or machete or bullet or bludgeoning, we will never have the answers. 4a Westerner, Chy being dragged away left u with the question, “How?” For every Cambodian, not a single one of whom has been untouched by the horror of this genocide, the question will 4ever be “WHY!?”

  2. Very special feature lots to think about
    Professionally made. Editing was superb
    Congratulations

  3. My family & I were some of the lucky ones. We left Cambodia 3 days after Phnom Penh’s fall on a boat heading for Thailand. Most of our relatives did not. They decided to stay back because the King has returned. They all went through what was subscribed in the movie, but for one of my uncles who lose all family members of 9, it was unbearable. On the last day before the retreat of Khmer Rouge to the jungle, the Khmer Rouge round up those who doesn’t want to go with them (those who stand on the other side of line) & gun them all down. How cruel are these animals? I can’t even labels them “human”. Again, I do concur that as a Cambodian, I will never have closure…

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