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The Art of Survival

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Needless to say, the conflagration from which Haing Ngor barely escaped did not leave him unharmed. When, as Ngor writes, “Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge communists exchanged our traditional Cambodian way of life for a vast, brutal experiment in Communism,” Ngor was especially vulnerable. Why? Because he was a doctor, and anyone who’d had a higher education, or was literate, was deemed worthy of execution by Pol Pot’s ignorant peasant army. Even Ngor’s eyeglasses marked him out as an enemy of the revolution. 

So Ngor abandoned a dying patient on the table as the victorious Khmer Rouge forces marched into Phnom Penh, hid his medical equipment, discarded his glasses and told everyone that he had been a taxi driver. None of these measures were enough to prevent him from nearly dying from malaria, dysentery, and starvation as he wandered through devastated villages of which nothing was left “except staircases rising into empty air”, or from being tortured horribly on three separate occasions. One of his imprisonments and torture sessions is for the crime of calling his wife “sweet” and being caught with a basket of vegetables.

cover art

The Killing Fields

Director: Roland Joffé

(US DVD: 27 Mar 2001)

None of his efforts prevented most of his family from being murdered. Most painfully of all, his beloved wife, Chang My Huoy, already half-dead from starvation, died while attempting to give birth to Ngor’s only child. Lacking even the most basic medical equipment or drugs to help her, nearly starved himself, and knowing that he would be executed if he revealed his professional status, Ngor was forced to watch her slip away. Her death was just one of at least 1.7 million that occurred during the Cambodian holocaust, each one resulting in the same world-obliterating guilt and grief that Ngor experienced.

Here is how some of them died:

People with shrunken faces and haunted, vacant eyes, with legs and arms as thin as sticks or else puffy and bloated with edema. Leaning on canes or on relatives’ shoulders, or alone, they walked with that terrible economy of movement that signals the approach of starvation… (a)round us the malnourished, the sick and the near-dead shuffled on in groups of two and three, dressed in whatever rags they owned… Those who lay down and didn’t get up had plenty of company, for scattered along the railroad track were corpses from the previous days and weeks. What happened to the corpses is what always happens in a tropical climate. Their skin had swollen, turned purple-black and burst through their clothes. Most of them had one leg or one arm raised stiffly in the air. They stank badly. Their eyes were half open. Flies clustered around the mouths and anuses and eyes.

There’s much worse in the book than this. At one point in the story, Ngor halts his narrative to issue a warning: “Many people find the truth about Khmer Rouge prisons extremely upsetting. Readers with sensitive feelings might want to skip over the next few pages and begin reading toward the end of the chapter.” What follows is, among other things, a description of how the Khmer Rouge crucified some prisoners over an open fire, and slit open the bellies of pregnant women, ripped out the fetuses, and hung them from poles. Later, the atrocities worsen, and Ngor is forced again to say, “This chapter tells of the very depths of suffering that people like me saw and experienced under the Khmer Rouge regime. It’s an important part of the story, but it is not a pleasant part. So if you wish, or if you must, skip this chapter and go on to the next one.”

To his credit, and his publisher’s, Ngor neither hides nor exploits these horrors. The same cannot be said for The Killing Fields, whose protagonist, Dith Pran, suffered less than Ngor under the Khmer Rouge, but witnessed even these lesser horrors softened by Joffe. As Ngor recalls: 

We did scenes of life on the front lines of transplanting rice, of pulling a plow by hand, and Roland was as interested as I was in making them authentic. He refused, though, when I asked him to show the Khmer Rouge whipping the men pulling the plow. I felt the film should be more violent, to show what the Khmer Rouge were really like, but Roland did not agree. In terms of historical authenticity, I was right; in terms of knowing what the movie audiences would tolerate, he was. If the film had shown how bad things really were under the Khmer Rouge, Westerners would have refused to see it.

Yet Westerners hardly refuse to see torture-porn movies like Saw.. We can bear all kinds of horror, as long as it isn’t real or doesn’t upset our preconceptions about the world. No wonder Malkovich, in a profile published in American Film published in 1985, referred to Jofee as “a Marxist wooly-head”. No Marxist wants to be reminded that the killing fields is where Communism, in its worst manifestation, inevitably leads.

Thus, in its refusal to look away from the truth, A Cambodian Odyssey is an invaluable historical document of a period of madness that has happened before in other countries, is happening at this very moment in still others, and certainly will happen again. More painful, however, is the fact that the trauma hasn’t even ended in Cambodia. 

The Cambodian holocaust occurred between 1975 and 1979. The Killing Fields was released in 1984, and A Cambodian Odyssey was published in 1987. The book is now out of print, and my local video store has only a single dusty VHS version of the movie, but with all the time that has passed, the perpetrators of the Cambodian nightmare have still not been brought to justice. 

Writing in the Wall Street Journal last month, Theary Seng notes that, earlier this year, one Comrade Duch, implicated in “the sadistic murders of at least 14,000 of his countrymen… was sentenced to 35 years in prison” by a U.N. backed tribunal. But after deducting “five years to redress violations of his rights when he was held illegally in prior military detention, and 11 years for the time he’s already served, Comrade Duch would only serve 19 years behind bars: 11 hours of imprisonment for each person he slaughtered.”

Four more-senior members of the Khmer Rouge hierarchy aren’t even scheduled to go on trial until next year. As for Pol Pot, who belongs in a sub-chamber of the very lowest reaches of Hell, alongside Stalin and Mao and Hitler? He died in his bed, albeit under house arrest, at the age of 60.

A Greater Art
Ngor, who saved lives as a doctor before the revolution, who struggled to feed his wife and himself, and who used the fame afforded by his Academy Award to publicize the plight of Cambodia’s refugees and help to rebuild Cambodia after his own escape to America, wasn’t so fortunate. He was murdered by members of an Asian street gang in downtown Los Angeles in 1996. Some have said the killers were affiliated with the Khmer Rouge, seeking revenge.

This is why the back-cover photo of A Cambodian Odyssey is so subtly irritating. In a typical Hollywood movie, the high point of Ngor’s life would have been the moment when he won his Oscar for another movie. Yet Ngor didn’t even think much of the acting profession. He notes, during the period when he was weighing whether to audition for The Killing Fields, “In Cambodia acting had been a low-paid profession without any particular status. I had been a doctor. I had owned a Mercedes and part of a medical clinic. Maybe I wasn’t a doctor now, and maybe I wasn’t wealthy, but everybody knew that I used to be. There was no need for me to stoop to a low-class job like acting.”

In reality, the high point of Haing Ngor’s life occurred simultaneously with the low point, in the incredible courage and will to live he displayed when he was being tortured, and other members of his family were being murdered. It was in his character; he says of his childhood that, “if I hit my head against a wall accidentally, I would hurt it again, to see if I could make the wall hurt.” It takes a person like this to survive three bouts of torture, to continue with one’s life after death was all but assured, and to help others when their situation seems as hopeless as one’s own:

In the hospitals and clinics, Cambodian staff and a few Western volunteers continue the job of medical treatment. The case load never ends: malaria, tuberculosis, dysentery, rifle wounds… When I am in the refugee camp hospitals and I see that almost nothing has changed, I feel powerless too. Because nothing I have done, from my medical work to my acting in The Killing Fields to my fundraising, has been able to change the basic conditions along the border. At times like this, when patients fill every bed and the breeze barely filters through the split-bamboo walls, my Oscar award means nothing to me at all.

This then, and not a metal statuette, was Ngor’s legacy, to continue serving his countrymen in near-hopeless conditions when he could have instead abandoned himself to a life of pleasure in Los Angeles as some sort of counter-balance to his years of pain. 

Though Ngor continued to act after his Oscar win, the hedonistic and superficial life of an actor in L.A. must have seemed trivial to him. His finest performances, after all, occurred in the killing fields, when he convinced the murderers of the Khmer Rouge that he was a taxi driver and not a doctor even as he was being tortured to reveal the truth. He learned how to lie in the service of life and, like any great actor, how to read people: “I paid attention to their (Khmer Rouge soldiers’) tones of voice, to their posture, to anything that emanated from their character, but above all to their eyes.”

It was this ability to see into others and to convey to them what it was they wanted to hear that allowed him to move forward even when the future was unknown and unknowable. Inventing himself as he went along, creating a persona that allowed him not only to survive but to help others, he was among the most consequential actors of his time.

Michael Antman is a two-time finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Balakian Award for Excellence in Reviewing. He is the author of the novel Cherry Whip (ENC Press, 2004), and recently completed a new novel, Everything Solid Has a Shadow. His website, where most of his writing is collected, is at Michael Antman

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