Monday, March 16, 2009

Dengue Fever: Sleepwalking Through the Mekong

John Pirozzi, 2009 (8.6*)
Mostly in English, with some subtitles.
Available this April.
[note: this review came out pre-release of the dvd]

There’s a very unique L.A. band called Dengue (‘din-gay’) Fever, whom you might have heard on NPR. They play a unique sixties-based 'L.A. filtered' Cambodian rock, which they say was derived from surf music, but you couldn’t tell from what Dengue Fever puts out, it sounds closer to psychedelic rock to me, with some almost Garcia-like guitar.

The Holtzman brothers who formed the band hired a strong-voiced Cambodian singer, Chhom Nimol, who was famous there before immigrating to the U.S. Their music is actually covers of famous Cambodian rock singers, who, due to the massacres committed by the Kymer Rouge regime, sadly did not survive that turbulent era. Along with Nimol, they are keeping this music alive in the world, and in this film, they take the music back to its people.

Director Pirozzi has filmed an engrossing documentary of Dengue Fever as they travel to Cambodia for the first time to perform what is essentially that culture’s modern music, and for singer Nimol, it’s a homecoming after five years absence. Pirozzi often shows the band’s performances from a close and wide-angle view (see photo), making the viewer feel that they are seeing the music live themselves, sometimes from onstage, sometimes as part of the crowd.

Rather than concentrate on just the band, Pirozzi also shows many wonderful images of Cambodia and its people, successfully using a montage effect at times, like traveling is shown in old b&w classic films. Since the entire country seems to travel on motor scooters, a hand-held camera is often used from a scooter in the middle of the traffic so we get a feeling of how chaotic the streets are there, yet everyone seems safe enough that no one wears helmets, not even entire families of 4-5 people on one scooter.

The band was lucky enough to be there during the Water Festival, celebrating the end of monsoon season when the Mekong River actually changes direction, so we get to see what looks like their Mardi Gras, as thousands pour into Phnom Penh from the countryside for a festival of fireworks, music, water sports, and food. Pirozzi includes encounters with local Cambodian music masters, and we see some of the effort being made with young people to keep this culture alive, which barely survived the war years and in some cases has a lone surviving instrumentalist.

The Cambodian people appear very outgoing and friendly, a friend of mine who lived in Thailand said as much. Director Pirozzi has created a wonderful film of cross-cultural meetings that created immediate friendships and lasting impressions. My only complaint with this film is that at 65 minutes, it’s about half an hour too short, so it feels 'tv length'. Thankfully, Pirozzi added about another 45 minutes of short films to the dvd so viewers won’t be disappointed. In fact, one song, “1000 Tears of a Tarantula”, is a wonderful jazz excursion that blends the best of both American and Cambodian music into one ethereal musical journey – this is the best music on the dvd, and should have been included in the film.

If you like the music, there’s an excellent soundtrack to the film on CD released as part of the dvd package. We need more music films this rare, stories that show good music, a joyous cultural exchange, and a window into a society that’s been overlooked far too long by the rest of the world.

Here’s the website for the film: Sleepwalking Through the Mekong

For artwork: Dengue Fever Promo Art

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