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.