Meet a new gen­er­a­tion of Cam­bo­dian au­teurs

For­ever plagued by the low­bud­get hor­ror and com­edy flicks that have al­ways proved suc­cess­ful among lo­cal au­di­ences, and the war films that con­tinue to shape out­siders’ perspectives of the coun­try, a new group of film­mak­ers in Cam­bo­dia is dar­ing to rein­ven

Southeast Asia Globe - - Contents - by cristyn lloyd

Clad in high-vis neon and with po­lice on hand, a group of Cam­bo­dian film­mak­ers is set­ting up a mid­night shot on an unas­sum­ing stretch of the enor­mous Hun Sen Boule­vard that heads south out of Phnom Penh. The oc­ca­sional car, truck or mo­tor­bike thun­ders past at break­neck speed, lit by the huge street lamps that dot the side of the road as far as the eye can see. And as the crew of Cam­bo­dian di­rec­tor Kavich Neang’s new­est short film gather around a road­side food stall prop, only a few no­tice a truck hurtling along, head­ing straight to­wards them. With not a few screams and shouts as the crew rushes to dodge it, the truck stops short at what feels like inches away. Af­ter many laughs, busi­ness con­tin­ues as usual.

This is the dra­matic re­al­ity of late-night shoots for a new breed of Cam­bo­dian film­mak­ers giv­ing a fresh face to the in­dus­try. Once dom­i­nated by low-bud­get com­mer­cial flicks and Kh­mer Rouge retellings, Cam­bo­dia – a coun­try with no for­mal film school – is see­ing an up­swing of raw new voices, lo­cal and for­eign, that are dar­ing to do some­thing new.

“[There is], I think, a spe­cial spirit, a spe­cial vibe that you can feel at the shoot­ing, which some­times is told to me from out­siders – some­how here, maybe the feel­ing, the in­tu­ition,

that they are do­ing some­thing for the first time,” Davy Chou, a French-Cam­bo­dian di­rec­tor who’s help­ing out on set, told South­east

Asia Globe ear­lier that day un­der slightly less stress­ful cir­cum­stances, cross-legged on a sofa of one of the crew mem­bers’ homes, which has been turned into an of­fice for the day.

Chou is a co-founder of Anti-Ar­chive, a Phnom Penh-based film pro­duc­tion com­pany launched in 2014 that fo­cuses on nur­tur­ing a new gen­er­a­tion of in­de­pen­dent film­mak­ing tal­ent in the coun­try. Along­side fel­low co­founders Neang, Tai­wanese-Amer­i­can Steve Chen and South Korean Park Sungho, the Anti-Ar­chive team have been be­hind some

Things are chang­ing – more and more direc­tors, more films, in­ter­est from the in­dus­try to in­vest in films

of the coun­try’s re­cent film suc­cesses, most no­tably Davy Chou’s de­but fea­ture film and com­ing-of-age story Di­a­mond Is­land, which won the SACD prize at Cannes Film Fes­ti­val In­ter­na­tional Crit­ics’ Week in 2016.

“I think it’s a kind of spe­cial time and peo­ple are aware of it,” said Chou. “Things are chang­ing – more and more direc­tors, more films, in­ter­est from the in­dus­try to in­vest in films. But more im­por­tant than that, I think a real de­sire from younger peo­ple to make films and to con­sider work­ing in the film in­dus­try. Now, with movie the­atres, film fes­ti­vals, also just ba­si­cally cam­eras avail­able to be rented and film crews, things are re­ally chang­ing.”

In a seem­ingly qui­eter cor­ner of the city, a dif­fer­ent, more siz­able crew have set up shop. Over­look­ing the Tonlé Sap river, the nowde­mol­ished Kien Kh­leang Or­phan­age Cen­tre in Phnom Penh’s Chroy Chang­var dis­trict has be­come the sight of a fear­some clash between pris­on­ers. In a cloud of dust and smoke, the 30-plus ex­tras all clad in pur­ple, most never hav­ing acted be­fore, are locked in an all-out brawl in its cen­tral court­yard, a gen­tle light stream­ing through a canopy of trees to form del­i­cate shad­ows on the prison bars and walls.

This is the set of the Ital­ian Jimmy Hen­der­son’s new film The Prey – cap­i­tal­is­ing on the suc­cess of his 2017 Cam­bo­dian ac­tion de­but Jail­break, by all ac­counts the first ac­tion fea­ture film in the coun­try and one of the first lo­cal pro­duc­tions to be made avail­able on Net­flix. Hen­der­son and his team have their sights set even higher for their new pro­duc­tion. An all-star in­ter­na­tional cast – Chi­nese na­tional box­ing cham­pion Gu Sheng Wei plays the lead role as an un­der­cover po­lice­man,

in­ter­na­tion­ally known Thai ac­tor Vithaya Pan­sringarm plays a prison war­den and Jail­break’s Cam­bo­dian ac­tors Dara Our and Dy Sonita re­turn for a sec­ond time – mak­ing the film trilin­gual. Hen­der­son ex­plained how, un­like

Jail­break, they are di­rectly tar­get­ing for­eign mar­kets, the first lo­cal pro­duc­tion to do so.

“This al­lows the in­dus­try to grow,” he said. “Peo­ple start pay­ing more at­ten­tion. You have more in­vestors com­ing in to make films here, and then you cre­ate more em­ploy­ment, [and] with more em­ploy­ment you cre­ate more knowl­edge. If you’re stuck just do­ing the very low-bud­get [films], the in­dus­try will stay where it is. The mis­sion is to prove [our­selves] to the out­side – we have the tech­ni­cal skills to do this, and then every­thing else will grow.”

The goal is to make a film that will ap­peal to Thai and es­pe­cially Chi­nese sen­ti­ments, said Hen­der­son. China’s film mar­ket is the sec­ond big­gest in the world, af­ter Hol­ly­wood. “We hope big,” he said. “[It] would be the first Cam­bo­dian film ever to show the­atri­cally in China.”

For the Prey team, the mar­ket­ing of the film will be just as big a beast as the pro­duc­tion side of things. Work­ing within an in­dus­try that for years has been re­stricted to for­mu­laic hor­ror or com­edy films – proven suc­cesses among Cam­bo­dian au­di­ences – very de­lib­er­ate mar­ket­ing choices en­sured that Jail­break would still have some com­mer­cial ap­peal.

“This is our ap­proach,” said Hen­der­son. “We thought about how we [could] break into the mar­ket with an ac­tion movie. So we started adding more com­edy and we started think­ing about gath­er­ing stars, lo­cal co­me­di­ans that the peo­ple know… The idea re­ally was to make some­thing dif­fer­ent, to push the in­dus­try in a dif­fer­ent direc­tion.”

For film­mak­ers in Cam­bo­dia, it be­comes nec­es­sary to build trust between not only film­maker and in­vestor – to prove that their prod­uct is com­mer­cially vi­able – but film­maker and cin­ema­goer, to en­cour­age them to ac­cept some­thing new and dif­fer­ent. This is a mar­ket­ing point that other lo­cal pro­duc­tions, es­pe­cially those that have tried but failed to em­u­late Jail­break’s for­mula and suc­cess, are yet to come to grips with, said Loy Te, pro­ducer of both The Prey and its pre­de­ces­sor.

“There’s been quite a bit of a trend of lo­cal pro­duc­tions com­plain­ing that the au­di­ence don’t sup­port [them] and pre­fer to go watch the lat­est Avengers or some­thing like that,” he said. “I think that if they work on [hav­ing] a stronger ap­peal, try­ing to con­nect more with the au­di­ence, it could have a much stronger im­pact. And it’s not re­lated to bud­get – there are ways to be smart, to en­gage with your au­di­ence, to get peo­ple ex­cited.”

Their new film will now present a whole wealth of dif­fer­ent chal­lenges, said Hen­der­son. “I don’t know about the re­ac­tion of the peo­ple,” he said. “[They might ques­tion] why peo­ple speak Thai in the movie. It’s a tricky one. We’re still fig­ur­ing it out. We’re us­ing our brand to show some­thing very good can be done here, but there is a lit­tle bit of cul­tural con­flict, I think.”

This con­cern for mar­ket­ing and pop­u­lar ap­peal is fur­ther from Davy Chou and An­tiArchives’ field of vi­sion. They be­lieve artis­tic ex­pres­sion is a goal in it­self and that the bour­geon­ing of an in­de­pen­dent film scene should grow along­side the com­mer­cial in­dus­try. “I think it’s al­ready a big goal,” said Chou. “[We have an] in­tu­ition that there are voices here to

We’re us­ing our brand to show some­thing very good can be done here, but there is a lit­tle bit of cul­tural con­flict

be ex­pressed but can­not be fully ex­pressed in the com­mer­cial en­vi­ron­ment. We re­ally give them the free­dom of… do­ing what they want to do. So the ques­tion is not re­ally can we find the suc­cess, [but] can we find the money to be able to make it hap­pen.”

Anti-Archives launched the Echoes From

To­mor­row project in 2017 to sup­port this kind of bud­ding tal­ent in the coun­try by help­ing three first-time direc­tors pro­duce their first short films. Fore­see­ing the dif­fi­culty in at­tract­ing in­vest­ment for the com­mer­cially un­vi­able for­mat of short films, they looked to crowd­fund­ing, through which they man­aged to raise over $24,000 in two weeks, $10,000 more than their orig­i­nal tar­get. And although not a con­scious choice, ac­cord­ing to Chou, hav­ing what ended up be­ing three women as the faces of the project was a re­fresh­ing and sym­bolic sign of the in­dus­try mov­ing for­ward. Meas Sreylin, San Danech and Tith Kanitha, who have all worked in a num­ber of pro­duc­tion roles for pre­vi­ous Anti-Ar­chive films – com­mon for those work­ing in a coun­try with no pro­fes­sional film school – be­came the first fe­male direc­tors at the pro­duc­tion com­pany.

Tith told South­east Asia Globe she does not see any cre­ative bar­ri­ers for fe­male film­mak­ers in Cam­bo­dia. “If you are a girl, you are a man, you are a kid, what­ever, you have the abil­ity to cre­ate,” she said. “But then, of course, we can­not deny that when we grow up, we are formed by tra­di­tion, we are formed by our fam­ily, we are formed by the cul­ture [that] sur­rounds us… I don’t deny that there are some bar­ri­ers, but when you come to cre­ate some­thing, there’s no bar­rier be­cause it’s your own thing and you cre­ate your own story.”

For both Hen­der­son and Chou, the de­vel­op­ment of the in­dus­try in Cam­bo­dia is in­ti­mately linked with mov­ing away from genre flicks, but also the craft­ing of an in­ter­na­tional im­age of a coun­try no longer plagued by war – of a boom­ing, de­vel­op­ing so­ci­ety that is launch­ing it­self into the fu­ture.

“It’s a ques­tion of rep­re­sen­ta­tion, which [is what] art is all about,” said Chou. This could be the dra­mat­ics of a prison brawl or sim­ply a young Kh­mer boy buy­ing a bot­tle of wa­ter on an empty stretch of high­way. “A dif­fer­ent rep­re­sen­ta­tion, to pro­vide dif­fer­ent perspectives and re­al­i­ties, his­tory, fe­male voices and fe­male perspectives on the same so­ci­ety – that’s what art and cin­ema is about for sure.”

Jimmy Hen­der­son be­hind the cam­era on the set of ThePrey, to be re­leased in 2019

Be­hind the scenes of ThePrey, with its lead ac­tor, na­tional box­ing cham­pion Gu Sheng WeiDirec­tors of the three short films in the crowd­sourcedEchoes From To­mor­row (left to right): Tith Kanitha, Meas Sreylin and San Danech

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