Cambodia Film Reviews: The Girls of Phnom PenhMay 31, 2012
This documentary follows the lives of Srey Leak, Cheata and Mey Nea, three young sex-workers in the capital. Working in a huge up-market karaoke parlor by night or streetwalking, and living in a decrepit room in a slum the rest of the time, it portrays a life that very few would choose or wish to lead.
All three entered the business when they sold their virginities off to rich local men. The belief that sleeping with virgins has benefits to health and fortune is endemic in much of Asia and other parts of the world and for a few hundred dollars a girl from a desperate enough family will spend a few days with a man. Unfortunately this will result in her being seen as tainted and unsuitable for marriage by most of society.
Cheata’s father had deserted her family a few years before. Her mother subsequently became crippled and she had been forced to work as a scavenger and beggar. She later got married and had a son, but then her mother died and her mother-in-law persuaded to her husband to leave her and take her son with her.
Mey Nea was a young single whose mother had also become sick. She says that she has no regrets about selling her virginity to pay for her mother’s medical care, even though she died not long after anyway. Unable to afford to take care of her son, he now lives with an aunt.
Srey Leak had similarly been sold off to the highest bidder by her mother who suffered from cancer and diabetes. Her mother makes an appearance a few times during the film with her clammy hand held out and generally complaining to her daughter that the money she sends isn’t enough and pleading with her to send her tips daily.
This seems to be a common theme in the film. Although the girls don’t actually take home much money, they seem to have a constant stream of ingrate relatives looking for handouts from them. The girls seem to live mostly on tips, and much of what they earn goes to repay interest on loans to the local money lender.
Cheata’s brother keeps sending her letters from prison complaining of hunger, and at one stage she reads out the letter which details all his requirements. There is a comical moment when the last item on his list is “Gold Roast Coffee,” and the girls laugh at how they have never even drunk it themselves, and they aren’t even in prison!
There are parts shot undercover at the rather fancy five-storey karaoke parlor, so we get to see what work is like for them. There is a “goldfish bowl” room the girls sit in behind glass till chosen by customers, and we see the activity in the rooms with drunken punters groping the distressed-looking workers.
The girls all met while working in the parlor arguing over tips but by now are close friends, looking out for each other when in need. At one stage one becomes pregnant, and we see her going for a grubby-looking lakeside abortion. They are visited at home by an NGO who tests them for AIDs, and we see their reactions on getting the results later.
All in all it’s an eye-opening look at the lives of these young women, who have had their fair share of tragedy and heartbreak considering they are only sixteen and seventeen years old. Depressing at times but with its humorous moments, I’d recommend it if even just as a window into the lives and struggles that many here have with poverty.