Italian director Jimmy Henderson has assembled an intriguing group of professionals for his latest Khmersploitation film – among them a French former porn star, an accountant-turned-stunt man, a babyfaced bokator fighter, a philanthropist, a distant cousin of the King and a bunch of Cambodian-American deportees.
In a dilapidated three-story building on Chroy Changvar last week, a grimacing Sisowath Siriwudd – brawny and thick-necked with a massive triangular tattoo on his huge, bald head – was being shown how to convincingly choke out a prison guard with a black baton.
Siriwudd, a distant cousin of the King and an accomplished actor, is one of the stars of Italian director Jimmy Henderson’s new film, Jailbreak, an action-comedy about a pair of police officers who have to fight their way out of a prison when the inmates take over. Principal filming for the Kongchak Pictures flick began this month and is due to wrap in early August.
During a break in shooting, Siriwudd smiled genially and pressed his hands together in a sampeah. His fierce demeanour had slipped away. He laughed when asked about his tough-guy character – a leader of one of the gangs in the prison who puts on a jailer’s uniform during the siege. He’s performed in a diverse range of big roles in his acting career, from monks to King Jayavarman VII, he said.
“To me, the script was good, so I’m happy to take any role in the film,” he said.
The cast and crew of Jailbreak are an interesting bunch. French-Cambodian accountant-turned-stunt man Jean-Paul Ly and baby-faced Cambodian bokator fighter Our Dara are the two leads. Savin Phillip, an actor with a growing reputation as a philanthropist in real life once again plays a sleazy villain, while French former porn star Celine Tran plays the leader of an almost all-female gang. And the set builders are actual ex-cons.
They’re all led by the towering Henderson, who’s carving out a niche for himself producing genre flicks with a twist that look better than their tiny budgets would seem to dictate.
While the promotional images for Jailbreak – which he co-wrote with Michael Hodgson – may make it look like a straightforward action film in the vein of The Raid, Henderson said the film was no less quirky than his previous features – the violent 2015 ‘Khmersploitation’ film Hanuman and the strange horror flick The Forest Whisperers (which is yet to be released).
“It took us a while to define the tone. I wanted to keep it absurd, with characters bigger than life without neglecting the major selling point of the film, which is the fighting scenes,” he said. “So Jailbreak ended up something like Scooby Doo on steroids.”
He said the presence of Ly – who was the one demonstrating proper baton choking technique earlier – was crucial in the making of Jailbreak. “He has experience working with big studios abroad, and he has been sharing this experience with the stunt team,” Henderson said.
“He taught them how to structure fight choreography, falling techniques and how to sell the hits to camera. So, with his help, we can elevate the quality of the action sequences and hopefully reach a wider audience.”
London-based Ly has worked on some big films – the Marvel blockbuster Dr Strange, Now You See Me 2, Luc Besson’s Lucy, the Brothers Grimsby – but just three years ago, he was a marketing manager for a pharmaceutical company – following the bidding of his parents.
“Then, exactly three years ago, I quit everything,” said Ly, who from the age of five he had been studying hapkido and later taekwondo, capoeira, karate and more. “I went back to France. I told my parents I want to do movies. And my dad was like: ‘Producing? Marketing?’ Uh, no no . . . stunts. True story. My dad was furious.”
The career change has proven to be a good move. Ly’s rise in the industry has been meteoric, from starting out as an extra to more recently assisting the fight choreographer on Dr Strange.
Ly said working on Jailbreak was a huge step down in terms of budget and scale, and a massive personal challenge – especially working with and training his inexperienced colleagues – but the film also offered him the chance to try acting as well as more scope for creativity and freedom in the action design.
He said he was also learning from the local stunt men on the film, all bokator fighters.
“In bokator, they love to do this thing where they run at someone and kind of climb up them and do a move on his head, which I don’t do normally,” he said.
“The thing is, what I try to do for this film is put bokator in the spotlight but also blend it with my style. Bokator fighters go for a lot of elbows and knees, where I would come with spinning kicks and jumping and stuff. We try to blend it to make it unique. So yeah, I’ve learned a lot from them.”
Ly’s co-star Dara said stunt fighting in films came naturally to bokator fighters as it was similar to the “kata” or performance aspect of the Cambodian martial arts.
“Films are actually much easier,” he said. “During bokator shows, we don’t get any breaks. During filming, we get to have a rest between takes.”
However, he added that fighting in the bulky protective gear that made up his police uniform was difficult.
While Tran – who performed in scores of adult films over more than a decade – has plenty of experience getting physical with her co-stars, she said Jailbreak would be her first action feature. She met the films’ producers at industry expo Filmart in Hong Kong.
She doesn’t come unprepared – she’s already been training in martial arts and stunts and has done several short videos and demo reels with a stunt team in Paris.
“I love [doing action]. I love training, learning, taking some risks,” said the 37-year-old, who is French-Vietnamese. “I feel blessed to have met such a great team of stunt performers in France; I learn a lot from them. And now I learn a lot from the stunt choreographer and actor Jean-Paul Ly, who is on set for Jailbreak. I just want to keep going. When I’m not on set, I spend a lot of time at the dojo, practicing martial arts; that’s a part of my life.”
Tran said she got into the adult film industry – where she worked under the alias Katsuni – “to experiment, to learn about pleasure, sensuality, sexuality, relationships, intimacy” but after 13 years, she felt she had nothing left to learn and wanted to start over.
“I truly enjoyed my past career, but I only focus on ‘here and now’, and today my place is in mainstream movies. Besides, I also write comics and start to work as a DJ.”
Phillip – who spends much of his spare time on his own charity, which helps the poor and underprivileged – said he had no problem working with a former porn star.
“Most of my scenes are with Celine,” he said. “She is a kind of wonderful actress.”
He said she did not have many lines but her acting was “very good.”
In Jailbreak, Phillip plays the only male member of a gang called The Butterflies, a smooth-talking “playboy” who rats them out.
It’s the third time he has been cast as a villain – he played another gangster in Hanuman and a Khmer Rouge leader in Angelina Jolie-Pitt’s adaptation of First They Killed My Father for Netflix.
“I can play in any role according to what the film director needs, but it seems at the moment they only choose me to play a bad or rich guy,” he said.
“There are a lot of people text to my wife that they so hate me because of my bad guy roles in the films. But finally they said that they fall in love with my charity work!”
He said the character was the opposite of what he was like in real life, but seeing as Henderson thought he could play the role, he relished the opportunity.
Back at the “prison” on Chroy Changvar, the crew were still putting the finishing touches on the set – stencilling cell numbers, painting the PVC piping “bars” black.
Henderson said locating an appropriate building to shoot the film was one of the biggest challenges.
“We spent months and months looking for possible locations,” he said. “Once we got close to a strong candidate location, everything fell through. We managed to find an abandoned school only two months before the shoot and it was a rush to get it done on time.”
The job of finding and then turning the old school building into a prison fell to Mout Iv, 39, a Cambodian-American who was deported from the US about five years ago, and his team.
“So I knew couple of [deportees] who needed work,” Iv said. “And my thing is providing and giving hope to some of these returnees out here.”
Iv said settling in was difficult for returnees – who often have no connections in the Kingdom, speak no Khmer and are provided with no rehabilitation or support – and the three he invited on board had all been in the Kingdom less than nine months.
Already having working on his third feature film in four years, Iv said he hoped to offer opportunities to his fellow deportees.
“I think they see potential in the film industry,” he said. “They have the confidence now to say ‘OK, now this is something I can do that interests me’. It’s building their confidence and showing the potential for them.”
The irony of the work wasn’t lost on them, he added.
“We laughed it off. Like, shit man, we come out of prison to build a prison. It was a joke to us. It’s funny that it happened that way.”
Their experience as inmates also gave them personal insight into how jails should look from the inside. So was there anything that Henderson got wrong about how the prison should look?
“Nah, Jimmy is good. He did his research. We didn’t need to change a thing,” Iv said.