Behind the scenes in Cambodia

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PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — Touch Sohka has arguably the most famous voice in Cambodia, and yet nobody has seen his face. The 49-year-old is on every Khmer television station daily, but nobody has any clue what he looks like.

Confused? Well, so is he. Touch says he has trouble understanding his own profession. It’s that strange, he says. Just ask his kids. They think he’s nuts.

Touch is one of the only voice actors in a country that almost explicitly runs, and obsessively manages, foreign entertainment on television. He has dubbed them all: Wolverine, Jackie Chan, that whiny kid from Transformers — each role contorted by his grouchy baritone and signature gusto, “Ay-ya!”

Then, after hours of inescapable, serendipitous dubbing, the credits roll: Not a mention of Touch nor his dubbing cohorts. Why?

“My job isn’t acting,” Touch explained recently from a studio as anonymous and difficult to find as Touch. “My job is speaking. I’m not a film star. I’m not a singer. I stay in the studio. I hide my face.”

In Cambodia, dubbing is a serious and regulated business. Touch’s company, Sunday Video, holds a near monopoly over the industry and acts like a filter, government-endorsed and monitored. They translate, add seemingly random musical accompaniment, catch anything political or racy, and blur out unmentionables. In other words, Sarah Jessica Parker and the gang aren’t getting a lot of air time.

The final product usually falls somewhere between a dubbed-over Godzilla flick and an ill-synced, blurry Ashley Simpson concert. With an occasional “Ay-ya!” thrown in for good measure.

“Sometimes, the television is not all that beautiful to listen to,” Chea Chen Rachna, 27, said while waitressing at Java, a popular cafe in Phnom Penh. “But I would choose a dubbed movie over a movie that’s not dubbed every time. ... I know I love it.”

The amusingly poor dubbing seems to augment what most Khmer enjoy about watching television: chaotic action and physical comedy. Ironic joking and witty dialogue don’t elicit the laughs in Cambodia. But someone tripping or an obviously fake moustache? Now that’s comedy.

There’s unintentional comedy as well. With only five dubbers at Sunday Video, which handles 80 to 90 percent of the foreign television programs and movies aired here, the amount of work often exceeds staffing. The results are baffling. Films may have two or three voices for dozens of characters. Sometimes, the viewer is left wondering at a small boy with a man’s voice.

“We hate dubbing children,” veteran dubber Nong Pholly lamented, voice booming as usual. “Sore throats for days.”

As with most developing countries, Cambodia doesn’t boast much of an entertainment industry. Indeed, what incipient media exists has suffered setbacks recently. Since 2008, the number of Khmer companies that produce television programs has plunged 85 percent, from 75 production companies to 12, according to Cambodia’s Cinema and Cultural Diffusion Department.

By 2012, Cambodia’s film industry will be all but extinct, predicted Sin Chan Saya, the director of the department. “We don’t produce movies well, so it’s difficult for them to succeed,” Sin said. “A film industry is important because we can disseminate our culture, but the quality, the talent isn’t good.”

Yet remarkably, demand for more Khmer television stations remains fierce. A decade ago, only four Khmer television stations existed; today, there are 10.

So we’re left with an interesting situation. Less native entertainment available plus additional air space and available foreign programs equals dubbing, dubbing and confused viewers.

“It’s difficult to explain my work,” Nong half-shouted. “So difficult! Because the people always think our work is easy. They think all we do is talk and talk and talk, and do nothing.”

Such, they say, is the life and times of a Cambodia dubber: life, misunderstood. And ignored. Like the hand model or ghost writer, their talent gets shunted. Famous ... kinda.

This can be a good thing. Or bad.

Nong, a tad vain, hates when people recognize her or her famous voice. “I’m too old!” Nong, 56, bellowed. “I’m almost 60. Yes, I want fame, but I don’t want them to know my face. I’m not like a singer or like other famous people and I’m happy for this.”

Even for this article, no pictures of them were allowed; no one, they say, can know their identity.

If not fame, what then, is the allure of dubbing? Money, and lots of it. Each of the five voice actors makes about $6,000 per year — more than three times the national average of $1,900 per year, according to CIA records — and are content with wealthy anonymity.

So maybe what happened next at Sunday’s studios, though strange and slightly embarrassing, makes sense. Short on staff, the production company looks for actors in every situation — like, say, the middle of newspaper interviews.

As this reporter was preparing to depart the studio, management ventured a tempting offer: “Would you be interested in starring in a Khmer karaoke music video? You could be the foreigner.”

Ay-ya!