City of Ghosts (2002)

Cynthia Fuchs

A strangely moralistic romance, premised on his relationship with the setting, Cambodia.

City of Ghosts

Director: Matt Dillon
Cast: Matt Dillon, Gérard Depardieu, James Caan, Stellan Skarsgård, Sereyvuth Kem, Natascha McElhone
MPAA rating: R
Studio: United Artists
First date: 2002
US Release Date: 2003-05-02 (Limited release)

City of Ghosts, Matt Dillon's directorial debut, is a strangely moralistic romance, premised on his relationship with the setting, Cambodia. As he's repeated in recent interviews, Dillon was inspired to shoot a movie there when he first visited the country in 1993. "Cambodia," he says, has a "dreamlike quality" or again, an "almost nightmarish quality," characterized by "extreme poverty and crime," as well as "a sense of danger."

Whatever it means to him, Dillon's reverence for "Cambodia" is clear enough in City of Ghosts, in its images of Phnom Penh's exquisite architecture and hectic street life (it's the first Western feature to be filmed in Cambodia since 1964's Lord Jim). But the veneration is filtered through a familiar combination of bad-idea inclinations -- to exoticize and also domesticate the setting. It would be clichéd but partly accurate to say the "place itself" becomes a character. More to the point, the place itself is reimagined in a series of expatriates and locals, one more corrupt (or at least more confused) than the other. There are two exceptions to this nefarious lineup: the cyclo Sok (Sereyvuth Kem, a real life moto taxi driver Dillon hired on location) and the beautiful white girl, a standard character here named Sophie, played by Natascha McElhone, whose careful performance is relegated to serving the beautiful white guy's trajectory.

This guy is Jimmy (Dillon), and his trajectory involves seeking redemption for his earthly sins. It's a neat coincidence (or is it a metaphor?) that Sophie is an art restorer doing good work in ancient Southeast Asian monasteries, as her attention and eventual faith in this man she barely knows, will lead to his own "restoration." His need for spiritual refurbishment is laid out in a brief first sequence. He first appears looking morose in front of his tv, watching post-hurricane interviews with teary North Carolina homeowners, wrongly presuming that their Capable Trust insurance will see them through this disaster. Indeed, Jimmy is their erstwhile insurance salesman, now being questioned by the feds because the insurance is a scam, and all these teary folks are royally screwed.

His onerous sense of guilt (not to mention his fear of being caught) leads Jimmy to track down his conman partner, Marvin (James Caan), now living in or around Phnom Penh, where he's putting together a new casino and 30-story hotel deal with an ex-general and assorted other corrupt officials, with some money issues that concern the Russian mafia. Jimmy has this idea that if he confronts Marvin, he'll be able to cleanse himself of the bad he's done. Or maybe he just wants to make Marvin feel as guilty as he does. Or maybe, really, he has a proclivity, as he tells Sophie when the first meet, for being "in the wrong place at the right time." "Yeah," she smiles, irresistibly, "You seem like that type."

He does. But that only makes him like everyone else in the film, including blustery hotelier/bartender Emile (Gérard Depardieu), who likes leaning across his bar or standing in his doorway with his half-Asian child on his hip, gabbing and opining, but denying any knowledge of what goes on around him. Also hanging round the same bar is Marvin's ostensibly closest associate, Kaspar (Stellan Skarsgård), who immediately telegraphs his desperation and deceitfulness by acting shifty, wearing white, and declaring his love for a pretty prostitute whose language he can't understand.

Jimmy's own good heart is illustrated by the fact that he makes friends with someone with whom he can have actual conversations, Sok, who does speak English. On Jimmy's arrival in town, Sok amiably offers to take him to the bar where he's supposed to meet Marvin; Jimmy settles back into the moto taxi, only to find that the destination is just across the street. He takes this joke at his expense as a sign of Sok's effective con-manship, however, and soon he's trusting his life to his new friend, who not only knows his way around the area, but also goes out of his way to help this brooding visitor.

Beautifully shot by Jim Denault (also DP on Boys Don't Cry and Our Song), the movie conjures a range of moods, from desolate and seductive, revealing as well an earnest appreciation for both the rich history and impoverished present of Phnom Penh. Denault's persistently active handheld camera displays the city's pulsing energy as well as its decaying French Colonial facades and interiors, not to mention some strikingly shadowed faces, both local and foreign (Dillon and McElhone's seem similarly chiseled).

But this stunning backdrop can't quite salvage the dreariness of the tale. Both dumb enough to have faith in Marvin and smart enough to know he shouldn't, Jimmy remains in country out of a loyalty based on reasons that are easy to figure out. Co-written by Dillon and Barry Gifford (Wild at Heart), City of Ghosts is billed as a thriller, but is caught between its heart-of-darknessy intrigue and touristy fascination with "otherness." The plot includes multiple plot twists and late-night excursions, into karaoke bars and brothels (at one, the girls are displayed behind a glass, dressed in Western baby-doll outfits for the pleasure of sweaty tourists) and along out-of-city back roads.

Jimmy's quest begins and resolves in fairly standard fashion. But its location in Cambodia -- where Pol Pot massacred some two million citizens following the fall of Saigon in 1975, either unstopped or propped up by the U.S., depending on whom you read -- makes that quest both more naïve and more insidious. As Marvin and Kaspar's machinations become increasingly malevolent and self-absorbed, Jimmy's quest changes shape at last, thanks to his association with the unfathomably loyal Sok (the romance with Sophie is an extraneous nod to convention). Ironically and predictably, City of Ghosts's blind spot is its quixotic image of "Cambodia," which, for all its profuse visual intensity, remains an abstraction. Aside from Sok (whose father's murder by the Khmer Rouge is drawn from the actor's own background), the locals have hardly a thing to say about all these foreigners come to exploit them.

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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