Haing Ngor, A Cambodian Odyssey

Haing Ngor Was Among the Most Consequential Actors of His TimeHaing NgorHaing Ngor Was Among the Most Consequential Actors of His Time

Haing Ngor’s finest performance occurred in Cambodia’s actual killing fields, when he convinced the Khmer Rouge that he was a taxi driver, not a doctor.

A Cambodian Odyssey
Haing Noir
February 1988

It isn’t often that a brutal personal account of mass murder, slavery, torture, and the obliteration of a sovereign nation causes a reader to meditate on the art of acting, but then, Haing Ngor’s was no ordinary life. An Academy Award winner for his role in the 1984 film The Killing Fields, and a survivor of the Cambodian genocide chronicled in the film, Ngor is depicted on the back cover of his memoir, A Cambodian Odyssey, holding aloft his Oscar, his entire being ablaze with joy. On the front cover is a picture of Ngor as he must have looked during the depths of his travails just a few years before, seated in torn fatigues, with an expression on his face that defies description – other than to say it is the same as in photographs of Cambodians as they entered Pol Pot’s infamous prison, Tuol Sleng, knowing they were about to be tortured to death.

These two photographs of Ngor are troubling, though in an entirely less consequential sense. To begin with, their placement on the front and back covers of A Cambodian Odyssey suggests that the low and high points of his journey are defined, respectively, by his imprisonment and repeated torture at the hands of the Khmer Rouge and by his improbable Hollywood triumph. This is misleading on many levels, as Ngor clearly states in A Cambodian Odyssey. More on this inadvertent falsity – evidently a product of the book’s publishers and marketers rather than of Ngor himself – later.

In addition, it would appear from the attribution on A Cambodian Odyssey‘s inside back flap that a captor or fellow prisoner did not take the front-cover photograph during Ngor’s time as a “war slave”, but rather is a production still from the movie. There’s no intent to deceive, and Ngor’s memories of the Pol Pot era surely were corrosive enough for him to convincingly replicate the way he felt in his darkest days for the cameras. (Even though it should be noted that the experiences Ngor reproduced in the movie were not his, but that of his countryman, Dith Pran.)

However, as this photo suggests, too often, the pleasure we take in the art of acting is limited to an appreciation of the actor’s ability merely to be himself, which, to state it bluntly, makes acting hardly an art at all. Ngor, adrift in America after enduring four years of unspeakable horror in his native country, reluctantly allowed himself to be drawn into the auditions for The Killing Fields mostly because he thought the movie might help publicize the plight of his fellow Cambodians. The producers and the director, Roland Joffe, undoubtedly detected some natural talent in Ngor, who had never acted before. Still, they also saw Ngor himself – profoundly traumatized, unhealthy-looking, and underweight, but willing to work hard, and, needless to say, of the same ethnicity as Dith Pran. Maybe that was all they, and the viewers of the movie, really needed.

In short, though Haing Ngor was portraying one of his countrymen in The Killing Fields, he was really playing himself. How else could this man, a practicing physician before his life was destroyed by the Khmer Rouge, have garnered an Academy Award, which, in theory, is given only to those at the peak of the acting profession?

In truth, a look at the winners of the Academy Award over the years suggests just how un-special the award is and how easy it is to win if you happen to be the right person in the right place and time. In 1946, Harold Russell, an amputee and World War II veteran in his first acting role, won the Academy Award for Best Actor in The Best Years of Our Lives, playing, ahem, an amputee and World War II veteran. He appeared in just two subsequent films. Tatum O’Neal was 10 years old in 1973 when she won the Academy Award for Best Actress. In 1979, an eight-year-old boy, Justin Henry, was nominated in the Best Supporting Actor category.

There aren’t any eight-year-olds – nor non-professionals essaying their art for the first time – winning Pulitzers, Guggenheims, or Pritzker Prizes.

Expanding the scope of inquiry to include unquestionably skilled professional actors does the profession no favors. Actors like Jack Nicholson or Robert De Niro (who’s been slumming egregiously for many years now) succeed not because they create living and vivid characters, at least in the latter halves of their careers, but because they are already exceptionally charismatic.

To be sure, there are actors – often British, it would seem – who don’t play versions of themselves over and over again, but instead transform themselves utterly into another human being. Then again, they haven’t created this new character, ex nihilo. They play off of the other actors, they are told how to move and where to hit their marks, they are given accent and dialect coaching, they are lit attractively, they are made up and costumed, they are given line readings, they are placed in front of beautiful landscapes or dramatic interiors, they are photographed and directed by others, and, most important of all, they recite words written by others. If on film or video, their bad takes are trimmed away, and even when offstage they are cosseted in a cocoon of perceptions spun by marketing departments, publicists and obsequious critics. They never, ever, work alone.

A Lesser Art

This may seem a highly reductive interpretation of what the profession is all about, but acting is inarguably an interpretive art, not a creative one, and thus will always be subordinate to, and easier than, arts that create something out of nothing. This is why great performances are so ubiquitous but great screenplays so rare. As the late columnist Sydney Harris put it in a brief essay reprinted in his 1982 collection, Pieces of Eight, “For every thousand excellent actors or actresses, there may be only one or two excellent playwrights… Indeed, one of the perennial problems in the theater (in all countries everywhere) is the high ratio of first-rate performers to third-rate scripts. We almost never see a play where the writing is better than the acting: In almost every case, the interpretations are better than the play deserves. And for every choice role there are a hundred qualified candidates.”

None of this belies the fact that some actors are simply better and more skilled than others. Ngor’s co-star and fellow Best Supporting Actor nominee in The Killing Fields was John Malkovich, and when Ngor was announced as the winner over Malkovich (and Sir Ralph Richardson, among others), Malkovich pointed to the Oscar and said, in the Cambodian language, “Ach an neh. Rar boh anh teh,” which means, “kiss my ass. It’s mine.” This was an affectionate jibe; Malkovich and Ngor became friends during the filming of The Killing Fields, and Malkovich had been taught this phrase and various profane others by Ngor, but nonetheless, many a truth is said in jest.

Malkovich is not only an infinitely more skilled actor than Ngor, he is a creative artist as well, having directed several movies and many memorable theatrical productions with the legendary Chicago ensemble Steppenwolf. Yet even Malkovich occasionally skates by on the same sort of thin shtick that characterizes nearly every other film actor.There have been a few too many times in his film career when he has trotted out the same whispery and menacing “effete aesthete” persona that he will, regrettably, be most remembered by when he is no longer on the scene.

It is on the stage — in indelible productions such as Balm in Gilead and True West — where Malkovich’s brilliance has been best displayed. In these productions and others, he pulsated with danger and unpredictability, as if anything could happen at any moment; I can remember one scene in a play where Malkovich was armed with a knife, and I was afraid that he was about to leap off the stage and stab someone in the audience.

As Malkovich and his few peers understand, that’s exactly the point: In live theater, as in life, anything can happen at any moment. The composition of the audience, which is different every show; the inability to do additional takes or edit one’s performance; the energy level of the actors on any given night; the influence of what they ate or drank or inhaled before stepping on stage; and the omnipresent gift of accident afforded by cheap props and creaky scenery results in a theoretical infinity of different performances, and conveys in any given performance the electrifying sensation that things could reel out of control at any instant.

In this regard, whether it is putatively realistic, twisted, absurdist, surreal or fantastical, theater at its best conveys at least a glimmering of the contingency and strangeness and unpredictability of life itself.

Of all that life is, the one thing it is assuredly not is pre-determined — we simply cannot know how the story will end. While theater and movies have in common a dependence on scripts, in most other ways movies are the anti-spontaneous polar opposite of the theater. In a movie, nothing can happen, because it already has happened — on the set, months ago and in a pitch meeting, years before that.

This sense of anti-spontaneity is only getting worse. From the beginning, film actors — whether in romantic comedies or war movies or action flicks — have always acted out their roles with an unseemly and unconvincing confidence, as if they know how the movie will end because they’ve already read the script, which of course they have. Where is the uncertainty, the ignorance of the future, and the tremulousness with which all of us launch ourselves into the unknown? Nowhere to be seen in our movies, where the unreality of performance has been heightened in recent years by Hollywood’s relentless marketing machine, which uses focus groups and other forms of research to ensure that the audience not be exposed to anything they aren’t already expecting. Add in CGI, which by making everything possible makes nothing believable; and plastic surgery, which turns familiar actors into waxen dummies of their actual selves, which are already one or two steps removed from the realm of real humanity; and most mainstream movies are about as palatable as the plaster wedding cake in a bakery window.

In this regard, the emblematic scene in contemporary mainstream movies is the one where the hero or bad guy is striding away from the scene of an imminent explosion. Invariably, movie makers go out of their way to accomplish two diametrically opposed effects in such scenes: First, they make the explosion as impressively large and loud as possible to excite or alarm the audience, and second, they direct the actor to walk away from the conflagration without blinking or flinching, or, for that matter, suffering second- and third-degree burns to their back and legs. (Coincidentally, I happened to catch a cable reprise of Con Air, in which Malkovich plays a bad guy named “Cyrus the Virus”, while I was reading A Cambodian Odyssey, and sure enough, there’s a scene in which Malkovich and his fellow escaped prisoners walk away from a huge explosion they’ve just caused without reacting to it.)

Sometimes, the scene is a little different; the protagonist, usually with a pretty girl in tow, is running away from a rapidly approaching fireball, but the effect is always the same: No injuries, no burns, and no terror whatsoever.

Why should they feel terror? They’ve already read the script. They know they’ll come out just fine.

The Art of Survival

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.

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 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, 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. Members of an Asian street gang in downtown Los Angeles in 1996 murdered him. 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.