Director Mich Medvedoff can still recall her first glimpses of 43-year-old Cambodian-American Bora Soth, darting between sun-kissed, shirtless men on Los Angeles’ famed Venice Beach boardwalk.
“Bora didn’t take tourist photos; he’d walk up and down the boardwalk looking for hot guys to take photos of – without their knowledge. He was like a sniper, but instead of a gun, he used a disposable camera.”
Medvedoff, also an anthropologist, was fascinated and spent the summer following Soth with her own camera. The result is a 15-minute documentary, Private Eye Candy, released in 2008. The short but intimate sighting of Soth, at the time a 40-year-old, jobless, still-living-at-home voyeur, inspired her first independent feature film, The Wife Master, which opened at Santa Monica’s Aero theatre last month.
“One thing that really stuck out while shooting Private Eye Candy was that Bora didn’t like women getting in between his photo subjects and his camera. When people think of an ‘artist’s muse’, a gay Cambodian misogynist doesn’t usually come to mind, but Bora was certainly my muse for The Wife Master,” she recalled.
In narrative, a quirky The Office-style mockumentary, Bora plays himself: a gay Cambodian-American dependent on his aunt and father. Exasperated, his aunt throws him out of the house. Bora, after trying to squeeze money out of relatives, internet dates and sugar daddies, resorts to his uncle’s offer of $10,000 to marry a Cambodian woman wanting to immigrate to the US. The money soon seeps away, and Bora marries a succession of illegal immigrants until he’s bitten off more than he can chew.
The actions of the protagonist prove as hilariously cringe-worthy as those of The Office’s David Brent. He greets a hook-up he’s just met though gay networking app Grindr with “Would you maybe be able to help me out with currency?”
The Wife Master is a budget film: The director shot half of the movie during lunch breaks, she had limited equipment, and the cast was largely made up of non-actors.
Medvedoff co-wrote the film with her producer and writer boyfriend, Soth Norith, who is Bora’s younger brother. She met him through the film, in 2008.
The film, she says, is about “the backwards American Dream … about people whose ambition is to do as little as possible … a type of epidemic in America.” It was something Norith saw in his brother.
“Bora is 43 and still lives at home. I’ve always thought it was so terrible. I actually couldn’t stand my brother before this production,” Norith said.
“Bora’s issues, and the diasporic issues I’d grown up with, were so everyday and normal for me. It took Mich to see it and say this is fascinating.”
The fabled American Dream also failed to materialise for the brothers’ father, esteemed Cambodian author and journalist Soth Polin. Polin, an anti-Sihanouk Lon Nol supporter, founded and published the Khmer newspaper Nokor Thom before fleeing to France with his family in 1974. Norith and Bora have never returned.
Neither will their father, said Norith. “He was like Phnom Penh’s Stephen King [before the fall of the city]. I can’t imagine what that is like, to reach that pinnacle in your life and then have that ripped from you.
“He’s basically been poor ever since. He was a cab driver in Paris, a shuttle driver at Long Beach airport. He tried to open up another newspaper in Long Beach, but that fell apart. I think, for my father, the idea of starting again was just too hard.”
Norith said that while The Wife Master has a light tone, he hopes viewers see a dark side to democracy through the juxtaposition of the apathetic Bora with the hard-working, ambitious Cambodian women.
“There are so many complacent people like this: You have freedom to do whatever you want, but there are people that are just comfortable to do nothing; it’s part of our culture today.”
A sequel is being shot in France. The team also hope The Wife Master will get a Cambodian screening at some point in the future.