Returning to the country her family fled years earlier because of persecution by the Khmer Rouge, Kalyanee Mam has crafted a deeply felt portrait of Cambodia. Her documentary "A River Changes Course" is a profile of three families in different parts of the Southeast Asian nation — a remote northern jungle, a floating hamlet on the Tonle Sap River and a village outside Phnomh Penh — that captures the country at a crucial juncture on the industrialization spectrum.
However emblematic their struggles are, the people Mam follows over several years are vivid individuals, whether they're facing a poor rice harvest, dwindling fish supplies or deforestation in the name of progress. The director/cinematographer's alert lens catches the snide grins of bank reps when a struggling farmer makes a payment on her loan, the weariness of young women working garment-factory jobs for a monthly wage of $61, and the sheer joy of a young boy leaping into the river.
Sari Math, a spirited teen who had to quit school to help support his family, speaks philosophically about money. Sav Samourn, a young mother whose clear-eyed strength makes a profound impression, dreads a future where her children will have no choice but to work for someone else, their traditional means of livelihood gone, along with their land.
Mam's camera work is exquisite in its immediacy and agility. One of the most striking aspects of her film is the intimacy it achieves without feeling intrusive or turning her subjects into fodder for a message.
"A River Changes Course"
MPAA rating: None. In Khmer and Jarai with English subtitles
Running time: 1 hour, 23 minutes
Playing: At Laemmle's Music Hall, Beverly HillsCopyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times