The movie is a 'film noir', a thriller who was made mostly in Cambodia, partially in Thailand and the beginning in USA. The plot is not too interesting, but it's nevertheless a thrilling movie. It's particularly fascinating to watch for those who know Cambodia or are interested in the country, because much of the atmosphere of the country is caught in the picture, and that's done very well. Parts of the movie play in Phnom Penh, others in Kep, the climax and final showdown is placed up on foggy Bokor Hill Station and in and around the old colonial Bokor Palace Hotel & Casino ruin. Matt Dillan, as the director, took time to show places in Cambodia as they really look. That gives the film a touch of a documentary as well.
Jimmy (Matt Dillon) is involved in insurance fraud. After big damages caused by a hurricane in the USA (as shown in the forespan, the movie is made three years before the heavy destruction of New Orleans by a real hurricane), his insurance is unable to pay claims. The FBI interferes. Jimmy leaves America to escape persecution and to meet Marvin (James Caan), a crony and mentor of him in Bangkok who is with the money from the fraud.
Jimmy on the way to the showdown on Bokor Hill Station. In the background the Palace Hotel & Casino. Image from the movie.
Meeting Kaspar (Stellan Skarsgard) in Bangkok, another crony of him, he learns that Marvin meanwhile is making up another scam in Cambodia. It's about this casino business on which the Southeast Asians, particularly the Chinese, are so keen. So, Jimmy next travels to Phnom Penh.
There he checks into a run-down, shabby backpacker guesthouse with a bar. The owner is Emile (Gerard Depardieu), a bizarre expat who provides some shrill scenes.
Making friendship with Sophie, a NGO employee and Sok, a Cambodian bicycle rikshaw driver, he is following Marvin's traces and getting ever deeper into crime and brutality.
The whole story is not very realistic, and the characters don't evolve anyhow. Sophie, representing the romantic side-story, seems mismatched in the scenery and among her friends/companionship. The end of the film is, compared to it's shady plot and atmosphere, incredibly positive. But who says that such movies always have to end with the dead of the protagonists?
However, it's clearly a movie worth to be watched. And, it's not a typical Hollywood production.
As mentioned, one gets a good impression of how it looks in Cambodia - sleazy, dirty, run-down and inhabited by a great deal of strange, obscure people and, when it comes to Westerners, a great deal of outsiders and crooks. That matches very much the eerie plot and the spooky surrounding of Bokor Hill Station. The only halfway trustworthy person in the movie is Sok (Kem Sereyvuth), the Cambodian driver.
It's pretty funny to see an old 'acquaintance', Gerard Depardieu, in the role of an barkeeping, weired expat. The behaviour of all the shown Westerners in the film is maybe somewhat exaggerated, but not too unrealistic. That's a fair thing for a movie. But, 'City of Ghosts' is not at all palliating things as it is done for example in 'The Beach'. One get's a look into the shabbiness of low-budget guesthouses and their rooms. Besides, some of the Westerners acting in sideroles in the movie were real backpackers, recruited right from the street in Phnom Penh.
Even one of the impudent macaques one can see here and there in Southeast Asia appears, stealing Jimmy's sunglasses out of his room. That's an event what would be highly possible in places like Lopburi, Pretchuap Khiri Khan or on Pangkor Island.
Remarkable is that Bokor or Kampot are not mentioned in the whole movie. There is repeatedly Kep and 'a place near Kep' mentioned as the place where Kaspar respectively Jimmy has to bring the ransom to, although Kampot is much nearer to Bokor. Therefore Kep is more picturesque and situated at the seaside, what makes it a better scenery for a movie than Kampot would do. In Kep there are also some of the old, abandoned colonial villas shown.
The music of the film is quite well to listen and contains elements of the indianized Cambodian style of music mixed up with modern elements. The music sounds rather inspiring and optimistic and contrasts the content of the story.