Two Australian directors flew to Cambodia for the first time in 2011 to make a film. Their experiment, the story of a girl who flees her vicious pimp, starring unknown actors, went on to win an award at last month’s Venice Film Festival. Rosa Ellen reports.
In late 2011 Australian directors Amiel Courtin-Wilson and Michael Cody flew to Cambodia with intentions of making a feature film set in the country and starring Cambodians. Courtin-Wilson had never been to Cambodia, and neither filmmaker had much more of an idea beyond a “thematic kernel” on the subject of trauma. Otherwise there was no script, no well-meaning “portrayal” in mind and no financing. The project would be an experiment intended to see what Cambodia would deliver.
Ruin, the feature-length Khmer-language film that concluded filming in January this year, went on to win a special jury award at the prestigious Venice Film Festival and earlier this month was awarded another prize at Moscow’s 2Morrow Festival, from a jury chaired by the director of New York’s Tribeca Film Festival. Its two leads, Rous Mony and Sang Malen, signed autographs at the screening in Venice. Twenty-year-old Malen wore a sampot on the red carpet and Mony, 30, gave an emotional speech.
Ruin’s critical success has been almost as swift as the manner in which the film came together in Cambodia.
Within a month of arriving in Phnom Penh, Cody and Courtin-Wilson had pieced together a film crew of nine, a story and two main characters. Much of the legwork was done by local film production company Hanuman Productions, under the indefatigable Kulikar Sotho, who became the film’s executive producer. In a whirlwind production schedule, Kulikar took them to visit dozens of NGOs and local performers in search of local stories and screen-worthy talent. They shot the bulk of the film in 21 days – amazingly quick by Australian standards, where the average feature film is in development for between five and seven years, says Courtin-Wilson.
“For us it was really about turning [our] naivety into something authentic – letting the world dictate how much the story was informed,” he says over Skype from the Italian island of Elbe, where he headed after Venice.
At 34, Courtin-Wilson is a lauded voice in Australia’s hardworking independent film industry. He is calm and open, with a determinedly optimistic streak, and his previous film, Hail, a realist love story about a man released from prison and starring Australian non-actors, received critical acclaim and a healthy international festival circuit ride, but not commercial success.
“I think we saw upwards of 400-500 people in about six weeks. So it was a very intensive process of immersion, which was great as I’d never been to the country before. I was absolutely naive about the culture, so it was a brilliant baptism by fire.”
Out of the fire emerged a confronting, otherworldly love story. Sumptuously shot and finely detailed, the film follows Sovanna (Malen), an abused young woman who kills her vicious pimp and finds herself on the run through the indifferent streets of Phnom Penh. She is eventually helped by Phirun (Mony), also a lost soul, struggling to survive in cramped tenements with other rural immigrants, unable to keep work and prone to bursts of anger. The film becomes a road movie, with the pair inflicting violent revenge on Malen’s many abusers and seeking refuge from their shared pain in an increasingly dream-like journey into the Cambodian countryside. The road movie format – with its element of crime and episodic storyline – suited the production’s experimental style, much of which depended on input from its cast, who the directors interviewed extensively for their thoughts on the script and storyline, aided by translators.
Malen, a graduating circus student at the Royal University of Fine Arts, is magnetic as the delicately fierce Sovanna. The filmmakers went to the performing arts school to audition acting students, but came across the then-teenager practising alone in a corner.
“There was … a beguiling kind of feline physicality that she has that was very unlike a lot of the other actresses that we’d been meeting,” Courtin-Wilson says. “She’s very self-possessing and has this sort of very ineffable simmering intensity that is in her on her own [even when] she’s literally just sitting down drinking a cup of water.
“I think we auditioned her for all of two minutes before we knew she was the lead in our film.”
Finding the right player for Phirun was a more straightforward task. Cody, who has lived and travelled extensively in Southeast Asia, worked with Rous Mony on the 2012 Australian film Wish You Were Here, where he had a bit part, and recognised his screen presence.
Back from his brief Venice visit, and sitting outside the bright circus tent of the performing arts school with his wife and young son playing nearby, Mony says the filming and unexpected international attention has been transforming.
At first, the naturalistic acting style and scriptless direction had the actor believing they were shooting a documentary. But then he began to look for ways to convey Phirun’s inner and outer demons, in some parts drawing on his early days when he was newly arrived in Phnom Penh.
“Yes, it’s true. If you get up early in the morning and go to the market you’ll see a lot of people working, some drinking, fighting. It’s sad. I saw a lot of people like Phirun. I also used to work like him [unloading fruit from a truck that came from the provinces].
“I feel sympathy for his character. He’s looked down upon by the rich people; they keep pushing him, so he needs to fight back.”
For Malen, the realist acting process was relatively easy, until a difficult – but powerful – scene between Sovanna and an immensely creepy, predatory sex tourist, played by British non-actor Johnny Brennan. Brennan, a tourist, was discovered by accident by the casting director and turned out to be a fan of social realist filmmakers Ken Loach and Mike Leigh.
The disturbing scene – not graphically violent so much as psychological – sets the cultural perspective of the directors once and for all, according to some of the Venice jury.
“From the opening moments there’s such a kind of a caustic severity to his very presence in their world, and I think that was very based very much on my impressions of the white people that I saw around me in bars and restaurants – it was an ugly thing that I wanted to touch upon,” Courtin-Wilson says.
After shooting for three weeks, the Australians went back and wrote extensively, including a new ending for the troubled lovers. They returned this year and shot more material for 16 days.
In all, Ruin was filmed in a 40-day shoot, split over two years.
Now, the cast have settled back to pre-Ruin life. Mony has just finished his latest film, Kulikar Sotho’s Last Reel, with Dy Saveth, while Malen is helping to teach at the performing arts school.
“I want to act in films again, but maybe I won’t have the chance,” she says shyly.
As is the case with independent films, the movie will spend the next two years or so screening around the world at film festivals, building interest before a commercial release.
A screening in Cambodia has yet to be finalised, but filmmakers hope it might take place at this year’s Cambodian Film Festival in December in Phnom Penh, where the majority of the film is shot, though organisers couldn’t confirm. The city inspired the feel of the film and its stories.
“I was really struck by Phnom Penh late at night – it really beautifully upturned all the cinematic tropes to do with the hustle and bustle of a Southeast Asian city. You were able to bear witness to this amazing architecture and these amazing streets that were just abandoned and there was something very fitting with the psychology of the characters.”