Rome IFF: Panh looks at twilight years of colonialism in Indochina

Article published on Oct. 27, 2008
Article published on Oct. 27, 2008
Cambodian-born director Rithy Panh – who has lived in France for over 30 years – looks at the recent history of his country of origin in his latest feature, The Sea Wall, which screened this morning in official competition at the 3rd Rome International Film Festival.

The director – renowned in particular for his documentaries (S21: The Khmer Rouge Death Machine, 2003) – has adapted his film from French writer Marguerite Duras’ eponymous book (brought to the big screen in 1958 by René Clement, an adaptation Panh chose not to watch). At the press conference after the screening, the director said he was especially attracted to “the interweaving of reality and fiction” in the original work, this being one of the mainstays of his cinematic approach.

The story centres on the character vaguely known as “the mother”, played by the accomplished Isabelle Huppert. This disillusioned French colonial lives in early-1930s Indochina with her two children, Joseph (19) and Suzanne (16). Through the fault of the corrupt colonial administration, the mother has invested all her savings in a piece of land on the coast, which is periodically flooded by seawater.

In order to prevent more flooding, she embarks – with the help of the local villagers – on the construction of the dam referred to in the film’s title, an idea that in principle seems absurd. However, in his film Panh prefers to focus on his depiction of the “end of the colonial era”, revealing the protagonist’s vulnerability and lack of roots.

Sergio Ríos Pérez