Cambodia’s Angels

The premise may sounds familiar: Three women private detectives shadow suspicious characters, use cutting-edge spy equipment to gather evidence, can unlock any door in seconds, and of course are attractive.

But these are not “Charlie’s Angels” of the American television series and movies. The detectives’ names are Channary, Anna and Maly. Their boss is Pov, who runs a detective agency from an office in Phnom Penh.

From left, actors Ma Rynet, Chea Samnang and Duch Lida with cameraman Meoun Vanna on the set of the television series ‘Neary Chhlat,’ or ‘Smart Girls’ (Siv Channa/The Cambodia Daily)
From left, actors Ma Rynet, Chea Samnang and Duch Lida with cameraman Meoun Vanna on the set of the television series ‘Neary Chhlat,’ or ‘Smart Girls’ (Siv Channa/The Cambodia Daily)

“Neary Chhlat,” or “Smart Girls,” the first ever Cambodian detective series, will debut next Thursday on CTN at 7:45 p.m. with the second episode airing at the same time on Friday.

While clearly influenced by the American show, the series is far from a simple remake of the U.S. programs, with original Khmer-language scripts and the “Girls” chasing suspects through Phnom Penh’s streets on their motorcycles.
“The Cambodian audience does not want copies…. They want original stuff,” said Matthew Robinson, executive producer of the series and the head of Khmer Mekong Films (KMF), which is producing the series.

“I’d be lying if I said ‘Charlie’s Angels’ was not at the back of my head when I proposed this series to CTN,” he explained. “This said, it is a very different show.”

For one thing, it does not rely on the women’s sexual attraction and revealing clothes as the American version did, he said. “The three characters rely much more on their wit and charm and, I believe, their skills as actresses.”

The “Smart Girls” are played by Huy Chanreachny, Ma Rynet and Duch Lida, with Chea Samnang as their boss, all of them familiar faces on Cambodian television.

In the course of the 24 episodes, they will investigate everything from a husband suspected of cheating on his wife, a pop singer’s career being sabotaged, death threats linked to a criminal trial and a murder. There will also be the case of the rooster kidnapping and that of the haunted house.

“It’s a drama-comedy,” Mr. Robinson said. “It has elements of, I hope, high dramatic tension, but done in a tongue-and-cheek way…to entertain the audience through the humor of the characters and the humor of the situations.
“And this is mixed with mystery stories where the audience have to use their brains to try to work out how the problem is going to be solved,” he said.

“Smart Girls” is, as Mr. Robinson points out, “unashamedly an entertainment show” with no educational agenda. Instead, he said, “There are human themes like ‘good triumphs over evil,’ ‘it is better to be honest in the end than lying,’ ‘deception doesn’t pay, true friendship pays.’”

The show also casts women in a light not common in the mainstream media.

“In my opinion, this series reflects the situation of women today who are not just housewives doing housework but…are the backbone of the country and work hard for society,” said Ma Rynet, who plays Anna in the series. “It shows that sex, that is, being men or women, is not a problem or obstacle.”

“In real life and in this series, it doesn’t mean that men are always the best at solving issues,” said Duch Lida, who portrays Channary. “Women can do the same. We can change broken lamps, we can ride motorbikes, vehicles. So why not investigate cases too?”

Great care was taken to make the series credible to Cambodian viewers. For instance, Huy Chanreachny, who plays Maly, is in her late teens in real life, while the two other actresses are in their 20s. So in the series, it is Maly who has an over-protective brother, Bona, played by Chhayti Ang. A police officer, he constantly keeps an eye on the Smart Girls’ office to the despair of Fixer—played by Yim Sambath—an IT expert who can repair anything, and occasionally gets equipment under the table.

“In everything, we must find balance,” Kim Ann Arun who reviewed the scripts for each episode as KMF’s script producer. For example, when Fixer tries to outwit Bona and makes fun of him, his ridiculing is aimed at Bona as a meddling brother and not as a policeman, she said.

“I reminded [the writers] to be careful not to make fun of police officers,” she said, explaining that ridiculing authority figures would not go down well with a Cambodian audience.

Ms. Arun also told the writers to make two characters hold hand in the early stages of dating, as is usually the case in Cambodia, rather than kiss.

Being a low-budget series, the production team could not rely on cars blowing up or airplane stunts for excitement, which made it imperative to have strong storylines and scripts to create suspense and capture the audience.

The scripts went through a lengthy three-step process. Once Mr. Robinson had come up with the concept for the series, he went about writing the life story of each character to explain who they are when the series starts. Then he wrote their “journey,” how the characters would evolve in the course of the 24 episodes.

This done, Mr. Robinson needed a storyliner who would shape the series to unfold over 24 episodes and come up with a hook before every commercial break and a cliff hanger at the end of each episode to make sure viewers return.

But while there are qualified film-and-television production people in Cambodia, there are no professional Cambodian storyliners, Mr. Robinson said.

So he appealed to Stuart Cheetham, who is currently working on the long-running British television drama series “Casualty,” and whom he knew from his time at the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC)—during his three decades at the BBC, Mr. Robinson was director or executive director of numerous television series such as EastEnders, Byker Grove, Coronation Street and Doctor Who, which earned him numerous awards.

Once Mr. Cheetham was done, Mr. Robinson, who came to Cambodia in 2003 and founded KMF in 2006, wrote the actual scripts complete with dialogue.

The full series consists of 12 stories told in two 30-minute episodes each, with a story starting on Thursday and concluding on Friday. Airing in Khmer, each episode will be posted on YouTube with English subtitles a week after its television broadcast.

Cast and crew are confident that the series will be well received by the Cambodian audience.

“This is the first series with women detectives in Cambodia, but there are many foreign movies [with women detectives] shown on both private-run and state-run television stations, so I’m confident the audiences will accept it,” said Chea Samnang, who plays Pov, the Smart Girls’ boss.

“Today’s women and girls are very brave and smart but it has never before been shown on the screen,” Mr. Samnang added.

“This is the first series showing the real ability and capacity of girls and women in the country.”

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