Smoking drugs through a straw in a decrepit Phnom Penh flat is a scene more Requiem for a Dream than High School Musical, but current box-office hit I Am Super Student tackles the sensitive subject of teenage drug use with equal parts humour and seriousness.
In doing so, it has brought hard-hitting high school drama to the Kingdom.
The story of a police officer who goes undercover at a local high school, I Am Super Student was directed by Hong Kong filmmaker Ken Chan but features young Khmer talent on screen alongside established actors like legendary Golden Age star Dy Saveth.
Rous Sophea, who plays the teenage drug addict Pitou, said he was eager to assume an edgier part after being known for softer roles.
“After being in Khmer Idol and promoting it for one year, I was tired of having the sweet goodie-goodie clean image, I felt like I was an unreal cartoon character and was always told what to do,” said Sophea, who added that he watched the cult British film about drug addiction Trainspotting for inspiration.
The action begins with David, a rookie police officer in Phnom Penh, as he is berated by his superior for flirting with too many girls while working. To save his career, he must go undercover at a high school to catch drug dealers.
At the high school, the students are enthusiastically beginning a new year. At the centre of the action is Visal, a whiz kid with a passion for dancing.
Although things go well at first, Visal soon begins doing drugs (implied to be either methamphetamine or heroin) after becoming depressed when his grandmother forbids him from dancing. To pay for his habit, he resorts to shoplifting and working for gangsters.
“We want to warn the students: you can’t simply trust anyone,” said Michal Loh, the production manager, who added that the movie ends with a trusted adult outed as a villain.
She said the project has brought a new type of filmmaking to Cambodia, where productions are often low-budget horror films or comedies.
“We wanted to make a movie about how teenagers live, but not just make it fun.”
Allan Cheung, the line producer, said the movie cost around $100,000, making it one of the most expensive movies to be filmed in Cambodia in recent years.
Sabay Entertainment says the film will be distributed in Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia and Malaysia.
The film has faired well at the Cambodian box office, according to Koy Socheat, Legend Cinema’s senior marketing executive.
“The first weekend was very strong, especially for Khmer New Year,” said Socheat, who added that about 5,000 tickets have been sold since the film opened on April 11.
A TV spinoff featuring the same cast may be in the works, according to Cheung.
However, it is young Cambodian filmmakers who Loh hopes the film will inspire.
“We want to encourage the young people here. They like to watch movies with very high quality, and we can see the industry here is very low-quality.
“We need to start somewhere, so it will grow bigger.”
“I say no to dumb stuff now,” said Sophea, who has often starred as the love interest in teen comedies in the past.
“There is an aware Khmer audience that goes to the cinema now, and I want to be involved in projects where the audience is respected and not spoken down to.”