Mixing humor with music, Poppy Goes To Hollywood is an excellently choreographed comedy and a long-awaited addition to queer cinema. Sok Visal’s film is a nonchalant, droll motion picture about the issues transgendered people and transsexuals face every day in third-world countries and it is the first LGBT-themed film in Cambodia (and one that garnered a majorly positive reaction, at that!). If you’re prepared for stoic, stodgy movie about social injustice then you will be disappointed. This is as light-hearted as one can get when discussing far-reaching matters like prejudice, bigotry and crime. But it works – Visal’s film is rich, engaging, refreshing and a genuine pleasure to watch.
Poppy Goes To Hollywood’s main character, Mony (Un Sothea) is not what you would expect to see in a pro-tolerance drama. The young man is a homophobic hustler who constantly lies, steals and causes trouble for LGBT people. This is until he runs into some serious financial trouble and his entire life takes a different turn. Although he despises her for her sexuality and identity, Mony reaches out to his sister, Lena (Pee Mai), a drag queen from one of the most renowned gay nightclubs. Eventually the man ends up working under Tony (Chen Choeun), his sister’s boss, and is thrown into an environment filled with individuals he callously hates. Not only is Mony ungrateful for this opportunity, but he also constantly berates Lena for being trans, ruining their family life and for causing their mother’s early death.
Mony soon receives a wake-up call, but also a real glimpse into the eyes and souls of the community he so fervently castigates. In time he learns the names of those who work alongside him and discovers that before everything else, they are people. Normal people just like him, with feelings, beliefs and ambitions for the future. Amongst others, he meets Dina (Peypey Dy) and Mimi (Tata), but also Sasa – stunningly performed by Poppy, the most widely-known transgender actress in Cambodia, with over 10 years of experience in modelling. Slowly but surely, Mony begins to change his perception of LGBT people, including of his beloved and talented sister.
Visal’s shrewdness and creative force truly shine in the movie’s ingenious plot twist – after witnessing a mob murder during one of his shifts at the club, Mony is forced to join his friend-dancers to a province named Preah Vihear and to disguise himself as a woman. As such, he becomes the very thing he hates. What ensues is a long, but surprisingly intriguing series of hearty travels, mishaps and adventures. It is interesting to witness Mony’s transformation, from viewing trans people as “animals” to becoming one of them and later accepting the community and even reconciling with his sister.
Mony is not the only character that undergoes this type of transformation throughout the film. The heinous and dogmatic Village Chief (Um Vithy) becomes progressively more open-minded and tolerant towards the LGBT community and even sympathizes with our trans dancers. Which is not too far-fetched to assume of the film’s audience (regardless of ethnicity), whose viewers end up rooting for the main characters and feeling deep empathy for them despite their differences. This was Visal’s goal with this motion picture all along, to initiate and quicken the dialogue on trans acceptance in less receptive third-world countries. Moreover, the director wanted the viewers to have a pleasant, memorable and primarily positive first encounter with an LGBT person and as such tried to depict the characters as strong, but ordinary individuals, not as “odd people or victims”. The filmmakers also wanted to cast as many authentic transgendered dancers or entertainers as possible, to ensure that the audience connects with real, genuine people behind the screen.
No matter how rooted in your personal convictions you are, Poppy Goes To Hollywood successfully manages to open up your heart to what it means to be transgender and the heartrending struggles that the community faces. However, Visal’s film is not a melodrama, nor a political statement. It will not shower you with sob stories or endeavor to solve society’s wrongdoings. Instead, it will attempt to show you a different side to people, and to make you laugh in the face of adversity. It is a modest, but heart-warming and boisterous movie that you won’t regret giving your time to.
All pictures reproduced courtesy of Asian Shadows