I don’t do documentaries often here. I should, but often I have to take a little while longer than other movies to process and digest the film and spit out my opinions on a documentary than say, oh, a Brett Ratner film.
Dengue Fever is a band from Los Angeles with a very distinctive style. Lead singer Chhom Nimol is Cambodian. Dengue Fever’s music is inspired by the Cambodian rock of the ’60’s and Nimol sings in Khmer. When was the last time you heard Cambodian rock music?
Sleepwalking Through The Mekong is a film about the band’s tour of Cambodia. It should be noted that while Nimol is from Cambodia, the rest of the band is all-American. In a way, the beginning of the film is a strong bit of culture shock. The band is already in Cambodia, performing and touring, and as they make their way through their trip, their story begins to unfold and the Americans begin to become more at ease with the country itself.
At first, the film seems to be straightforward: an American band playing Khmer rock music travels to the far-off land that has inspired their music. It becomes much more than just that simple fact. Past and present begin to overlap as the band members discuss what made them interested in Khmer music in the first place. Cambodian rock ‘n’ roll pioneers never known to American culture are spoken of with reverence and affection. The film subtly injects a small dose of Cambodian rock history when the band members explain where their influences come from while a wide variety of Cambodian locations are explored. The band plays in bars packed with patrons and traverses teeming streets; footage of Cambodia from years gone by is gently layered into the film. It’s a feeling of looking at what was Cambodia once…and what Cambodia is now.
The film gradually evolves into discussing more of Cambodia’s music while exploring the destructive power of the Vietnam War and the subsequent rise of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. Pot’s regime decimated not only the people of Cambodia, but Cambodian music and art as well. It’s a sad truth that’s hammered home when Dengue Fever takes time out to record with artists playing traditional Cambodian instruments. Many of these musicians are elderly or at least, much older than the band themselves, and they are struggling to pass down their knowledge to a new generation so the music, essentially, does not die with them.
It becomes a poignant look at Cambodia’s music scene and Cambodia in general, without deviating from the main subject of the band — which can be tricky. The filmmakers pull it off with ease, though, and even through exploring the varied landscape and people and sights of Cambodia, the music of Dengue Fever remains the same. It’s the lynchpin of the film and obviously the film wouldn’t be anywhere near as good as it is if it weren’t for how good Dengue Fever is as a band. Chhom Nimol’s voice is amazing. I’ve been walking around for two weeks (I told you – takes time to digest) with the band’s music rolling around in my brain. It’s beautiful stuff; uplifting and upbeat at times, but some of their music is damn haunting. It makes a gorgeous soundtrack for a film that’s a damn good experience.
If you can get your hands on a copy…I recommend it.