Same Same But Different combines gritty realism and romantic idealism in its portrayal of a true story of a Cambodian bar girl and her German boyfriend
By Dianne Janes
Phnom Penh residents may recall seeing trucks full of lighting equipment and blocked-off streets around town a year ago and wondered what all the fuss was about.
It was German filmmaker Detlev Buck and his crew shooting the story of young love, Same Same But Different.
The crew returned triumphant to Phnom Penh one year later, following rave reviews from screenings at the Locarno and Toronto Film Festivals.
The red carpet rolled out onto Norodom Boulevard at Cine Lux last Saturday night for the Cambodian premiere of a film that the director described as a “declaration of love for Cambodia”.
Many of the 200-plus locals who worked on the film were there to see the results.
Adapted from Benjamin Prufer’s book, the film is based on the true story of a young German backpacker, Ben (played by David Kross from The Reader) who falls in love with a Khmer bar girl, Sreykeo (played by Apinya Sakuljaroensuk).
When Sreykeo discovers she is HIV positive, Ben returns from Germany to help.
In making Same Same, Buck sought to go beyond stereotypical portraits of relationships between men and prostitutes.
“Everybody wants something from each other. That’s a normal relationship,” he insists.
Male lead David Kross reunited with Buck for the film, after working together when he was just 14 in the German film Tough Enough. Coming off such a big production as The Reader he found the experience of shooting in Cambodia a dramatic contrast.
“It was such a different way of working. You have to improvise. It’s very fast,” Kross said.
“I really enjoyed the whole experience. I got to see places you wouldn’t see as a tourist.”
Kross said he felt the film was relevant to his generation in Europe, who often take a ‘gap year’ to travel before settling down at home.
“You think your life is about to start. You have a short period of time where you can do whatever you want,” he said.
That liminal phase of young adulthood can make or break a person. What choices will they make?
The film opens abruptly with the stark revelation from Sreykeo that she is HIV-positive. It is a bold directing choice that immediately raises the stakes, inviting the audience to question Ben’s involvement with her.
Director Buck uses the film to challenge the cliche of the hapless lad lured in by a scheming mistress looking for a sugar daddy, and opens up the whole gamut of modern male-female relationships for closer inspection.
All the men in Ben’s life are predatory towards women.
His brother is casually cheating on his girlfriend with a work colleague, his best friend changes girlfriends more frequently than underwear, and his backpacker buddy in Phnom Penh views all Asian women as sexual conquests.
Ben stands alone as a decent young man, although in falling for a bar girl he failed to read the Sexpats Guide to Asia, in which Rule No 2 is “Never Marry a Bar Girl” – following closely on from Rule No 1, “Never Trust a Bar Girl”.
Ben rejects all the cynical perspectives on offer, looking instead to his father for inspiration, a decent, loving man who also met the love of his life in a bar.
However, Ben and Sreykeo’s relationship seems develop far too quickly. One is never sure what the love between the young couple is based upon. If it were not for the characters’ youth and the ‘true story’ aspect (in real life, Ben and Sreykeo now are married with two children), it could easily be disregarded as naïve fantasy.
Nonetheless, the cinematography by Jana Marsik is excellent and the cast deliver strong performances.
With the current anti-Thai fervour swirling about Cambodia, Buck defended his choice of Thai actress Apinya to play Sreykeo, pointing out that Tom Cruise played a German national hero in the recent film Valkyrie.
“The future here in Asia has to be global, not national,” said Buck.
Same Same But Different is currently in international release, however it will not screen in Cambodia owing to piracy issues and the lack of a suitable venue.