Sleepwalking Through The Mekong is one of the most fascinating documentaries I have seen in a long time. The subject matter is fairly straightforward: Los Angeles band Dengue Fever recently toured Cambodia, and brought along some cameras. And if that were all there was to this film, it would be enough. But there is much more to this story than just a simple travelogue documentary.
Dengue Fever came together as a result of some L.A. musicians discovering their mutual passion for obscure Cambodian rock of the ‘60’s and ‘70’s. Much of the original music appears on the soundtrack, and it is really quite extraordinary. When the five men found their sound, they realized they needed a Cambodian woman to sing their songs. Enter Chhom Nimol, who actually had a career as a pop singer in Cambodia, and had relocated to L.A. five years previously.
Dengue Fever’s music is a unique blend. One could call it a copy of a copy of a copy of a copy. But unlike a tape or picture, there is no degradation of the sound. The original Cambodian rock music took contemporary American music, such as surf and psychedelic, and blended it with their own, traditional sounds. Dengue Fever took that mix to 2000’s era American music, and added a genuine Cambodian pop princess’ vocals. They then brought the whole thing back home.
The background is important in understanding the true depth of this film. When the band plays, they are met with a plethora of responses. Stares of disbelief are common, as is the way the music wins over seemingly everyone in the end.
There is a great scene when the band sits down to a traditional meal with Chhom Nimol’s family, and are somewhat overwhelmed by the situation. Probably my favorite spot is at the end, when they play in a literal shanty town. Old automobile headlights are used as the lighting rig, the speakers look as if they were exhumed from a time capsule, and the entire stage seems on the verge of falling down. But the crowd turns out in droves, and dances joyously to the songs.
When one thinks of the misery these people have suffered under over the years, under the regime of Pol Pot in particular, these scenes become all the more poignant. Despite all the visual reminders of the absolute devastation the Khmer Rouge inflicted, Sleepwalking Through The Mekong is a film of hope through music. It is a reminder that even in the midst of utter desperation, music still has the power to inspire.