Sound — 9
Rather than regurgitating the usual live concert DVD format that is common among most artists these days, Los Angeles' Dengue Fever decided to explore the historical culture of their own blend of Cambodian 1960's-1970's rock music. Sleepwalking Through The Mekong (a double-disk set that includes the film soundtrack) chronicles the band's first experience playing in Cambodia, which also happens to be vocalist Chhom Nimol's native country. The DVD does feature extended clips of various musical performances by Dengue Fever during the 2005 Water Festival, but in the end it's the everyday people of Cambodia that become the main attraction. You have to give Dengue Fever credit for actually taking their style of Cambodian rock to the people who actually inspired the genre. To see vocalist Nimol return for the first time since moving to the United States is another fascinating aspect, particularly when she finally gets to tease her American bandmates about not knowing how to act in certain cultural situations. Rather than the viewer getting your run-of-the-mill concert, Sleepwalking Through The Mekong does feel like a let's-see-what-happens-next type of setup. No one is sure if things will run smoothly or what kind of equipment will be available, but the group embraces the mystery behind everything. In comparison to the fields of straightforward rock DVDs out there, Dengue Fever's definitely has a unique spin, especially when it comes to the humble venues in which they play. There is nothing larger-than-life about what Dengue Fever is attempting to do, although they do end up making quite an impression on the native Cambodian people. By the time the band is able to perform at the main concert destination, they are smack dab in the middle of a shantytown. It's obvious that the audience is appreciative and/or in awe of the entire musical experience, and it's hard to not pay as much attention to the reactions from the crowd as you would the band.
Content — 8
The main feature in Sleepwalking Through The Mekong only runs about 67 minutes, but it actually didn't need to be much longer. So much of the story is told through visuals (particularly the traffic-heavy, populous Cambodian streets), and it's a lot to take in. While the band's music is certainly a worthwhile listen, the biographies of each band member are fairly straightforward. I actually think it was the filmmakers' purpose to give the main stage to the Cambodian culture, and that definitely comes through in the feature film and the bonus section. Extras include fascinating interviews from 3 Cambodian master musicians. Each one gives a succinct history of the instrument and their own relationship to it, with Master Kung Nai (who plays the chapei) stealing the show. A man blinded by a severe case of the chicken pox, he spent his life surviving through his instrument. It leads up to an engaging performance by Kung Nai, whose delivery is akin to that of a Delta Blues man. While the master musician interviews are the highlight in the bonus section, there are also additional performance clips from Dengue Fever, as well as a look at Cambodian dancers.
Production Quality — 9
The production is beautifully shot, and cinematographer John Pirozzi did absolutely amazing work in telling the story through visuals. Language is a barrier in many instances, and the film often relies on a landscape or a person's expression to tell the story. Thankfully the music is on par with the visuals, and the soundtrack is devoted to the native artists who inspired and continue to inspire Dengue Fever. With the music beautifully mixed into the storytelling aspect, it makes for a one-of-a-kind experience.
Overall Impression — 9
Sleepwalking Through The Mekong doesn't feel so much like a concert DVD as it does a slice-of-life documentary. The good news is that it is engaging from beginning to end, and the film definitely exposes you to a very distinct culture. The film essentially becomes not so much about Dengue Fever as it does Cambodia's musical history, which in many aspects was nearly eradicated by the Pol Pot regime. Just as fascinating is the brief overview included about the 1960's-1970's Cambodian rock scene, and the inspiration it provided for Dengue Fever. Sleepwalking Through The Mekong might not thrust Dengue Fever into the spotlight, but it's certainly an educational and often times emotional look at the music that has evolved in Cambodia.